The Identity Project: The Atlantic Half
Storied, historic Macdonald Hall, built in the late nineteenth century by men whose nationalism chugged right along the lines of their economic interests, was lit that early autumn evening only by the dim brilliance emanating from its sham electric chandeliers.
Assembled in the Hall were the members of a prim audience, each adopting a presumptuous affectation of self-awareness as they settled slowly into their sturdy red-cushioned seats. As they did so, they openly evaluated each other, expressing visible but silent approval not only at the presence of their favoured acquaintances, but also at the absence of those not so favoured. For this was no ordinary meeting of no ordinary society, and membership, though not explicitly so, was in effect exclusive.
In the crowd, there were sweaters, protruding proudly beneath the sombre visages of chinless husbands; there were civil servants, of the kind mysteriously referred to as “high-ranking”, set apart by their peculiar combination of complacent paranoia and vengeful mediocrity; there were members of what they themselves called the arts community, projecting that special sense of self-importance which they share with flight attendants; to everyone’s delight, there were also members of the Canadian media, with their unique demeanour of petulant ingratiation; there were dozens of those routinely elevated in the local papers, possessing the quality of being “prominent”; and finally, there were hats, worn by wives, to signal a hint of regal import.
From the perspective of a practiced observer, appreciating the scene as a whole, their eager presence was suitably complemented by the dull, vaguely reddish glow emanating from the painted portraits of their venerable, but quite dead, counterparts, who glared soberly down upon them from a permanent vantage upon polished, oak-panelled walls.
After a moment the seated crowd hushed and turned its collective gaze upon the stage, which was raised a foot or two above the red-carpeted floor, and occupied by a stately lectern in its centre, with a modest table off to the side. On one of the two chairs set behind the table sat a figure who had adopted the air of a man looking serious in spite of himself, clearly the speaker of the evening; and beside him, from the other chair, arose the short, portly figure of a manifestly proud but secretly sensitive man, clearly the moderator of the evening.
As the moderator approached the lectern with rotund dignity, he raised his arms to silence the already silent crowd, and, after pausing for effect, he took a slow, ostentatious sip from a glass of water that had been placed there for him. With his head thus raised, and his nose in the air, he gazed at the crowd under his bushy white eyebrows in an approximation of pompous disapproval, while the mediocre light from above reflected off a spot on his balding head.
After setting the glass on the lectern, which he gazed at for a moment as though he believed it were about to say something, and after having assumed the look of a man about to engage in an act of historic importance, presumably with something on the order of national unity at stake, he began to speak with the confidence of a man known to all, who needed no introduction.
Which, for the assembled members of the Canadian Society for History, Identity, and Tradition, if not for almost everyone else in the world, was entirely appropriate. For this diminutive moderator, and as it happens one of the heroes of our story, was none other than Roderick Zulecken, now a renowned publisher of Canadian authors from southern Ontario, and formerly head of the Canadian Studies department at none other than Montreal’s own MacGulliver University.
Located in the heart of Montreal, like a minor monument to a tenacious belief in the potential for social hierarchy in Canada, the stately “MacGull”, with its ancient buildings, some of them over a century old and made of real stone, was famous amongst Anglo-Scottish Canadians all the way from Windsor to Fredericton, and had been advertised for generations, with unwitting performative contradiction, by the parents of its graduates as “the Harvard of the North”.
It was from this bastion that, throughout his academic career, Zulecken had nominated himself an arbiter of what should and what should not be counted as truly Canadian; and by his own humble admission, his status, his authority, and, indeed, his genius, had been acknowledged by experts from universities as distant as Winnipeg and Antigonish. Known by his own design to his students as Mr. Scrumptious, a nickname which he vainly promoted in playful contrast to the presumably serious importance of his literary scholarship, he was essentially harmless.
His sense of his own significance had, however, imbued him with one particularly unfortunate habit, which, though it does not redound to Zulecken’s credit, we are bound nonetheless to mention to the reader, given the importance of the role this publisher will play in our adventure. It is a habit familiar to all those who have encountered men who have achieved the pinnacle of achievement in a narrow, limited enterprise, and to which our little hero, like most of us, was by no means immune.
Not to put too fine a point upon it, Zulecken too often insulated his mostly unmerited sense of his own importance, by insulting his own students, who thus referred to him by quite another nickname of their own design, which it would be beneath the dignity of our story, and its subject, to print.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began - but beyond the first row of upright listeners no one heard him, for the microphone had not been lowered to the appropriate height for our noble speaker. Reaching up and at the same time glowering over his vintage wire-rimmed glasses at a young woman who happened to be standing by the stage, as though his indignity were somehow her responsibility, Zulecken brought the squeaking and cracking metal microphone collar down to his level. “Ah - yes - ladies and gentlemen,” he said, but once again no one could hear him.
Glaring with a mixture of indignant astonishment and growing panic, first at the device, and then at the crowd, Zulecken’s gaze fell upon a young man sitting in the front row who was making subtle movements with his mouth and hands, and trying to catch the professor’s eye. After a brief moment of puzzled astonishment, Zulecken realized the young man was signalling to him that, in fact, the microphone simply had not been turned on. The diminished professor, realizing his mistake, first turned to glare again at the young woman standing beside the stage, and even went so far as to gently wag a finger at her, before he turned the same finger to the microphone and, finding the switch, finally turned on the offending instrument.
“Ladies and gentlemen?” he said, as though asking a question, and, finding that even those in the back reacted to his words, settled his glasses on his nose with a stern flourish and gazed over them at the crowd. “I would like to thank you for coming to this very special meeting of the Canadian Society for Heritage, Identity, and Tradition. I would particularly like to thank our benefactor, Mrs. Margaret Campbell” - at this, he sent a pleasant glance and a dignified wave to the ancient, pickled heiress, who sat behatted in the audience, and who raised her eyes in a dignified manner as people turned their heads in her direction - “wife of the late Mr. John Campbell, the celebrated Bay Street financier, for having, uh, financed this special meeting, and to her daughter, the filmmaker Margaret Campbell, uh, junior” - here Zulecken sent a rather more tender glance in the direction of a middle-aged woman seated in the front row of the audience, whose ankle-length dress and expensively dishevelled hair betrayed her to be one of those who have chosen to be involved one way or another in what in Canada is called “the arts” - “who kindly contributed her influence to bring together such an assemblage of accomplished, uh, persons, the cream, if I may, of Canadian society.” At this, he paused for a moment and, noticing no applause forthcoming, began to clap his hands together, thus encouraging a few obliging members of the crowd to join him in an effort to applaud themselves.
“And our subject this evening is undoubtedly worthy of the presence of such august society.” At this Zulecken paused to take another sip of water, an oratorical habit of his which was familiar to his acquaintances and colleagues. Whether it was caused by a congenital sensitivity in his throat, or an over-reliance on one particular tactic, or was a sign of the great care that he employed in the formulation of his every sentence, or was in fact a mere affectation, was a subject of some often less than friendly speculation after each of his speeches and lectures. “For we are not here,” he continued, after having set down the glass with ostentatious care, “merely to hear about the latest research into one aspect or another of Canadian society, as important as each such aspect is to all of us. Nor are we here to debate the latest burning questions that are inspired by the ebb and the flow of the day-to-day political interests of, uh, the day, the little controversies that pass as quickly from our attention as they come to our attention in the first place. Rather, we are here to send off one of our own, very distinguished members on what, in the world of academia, is known as a sabbatical, I mean, a research project, but which, in this very special case, I think would be more appropriately described as a journey - or, if I may, a mission - or even, yes, even a quest - to discover the essence underlying and binding our society, history, identity, and tradition. To be specific, our distinguished member is setting out on an adventure, to cross our home and native land, to discover, by talking to real Canadians, what it means in and for itself, as it were, to truly be, to be truly - Canadian.” At this point Zulecken paused for another sip of water and, having finally completed his own journey to the end of that magisterial opening, the short speaker was appropriately rewarded with polite applause from the assembly.
“As we all know,” he continued, adopting a weighty tone he felt appropriate for the discussion of crucial patriotic endeavours, “there is no more important question for our country than the question of its national identity, for it is what holds us together. It is what gives us character, what makes us great, what makes us unique, and what sustains our international reputation on the, uh, international stage.” With slow nods and looks of ponderous significance, the crowd indicated its agreement. “But at the same time as we acknowledge the importance of our identity, we often hear that we have no idea whatsoever what that identity might in fact be. This is an absolute” - here Zulecken paused for effect, and took another sip of water - “an absolute falsehood, designed to pollute our national confidence, erase our noble and ancient, yes, ancient, history, and ultimately - and this is indeed a great threat - to disrupt our national unity.” At these last two words the nods became more vigorous, and were accompanied in one or two places by clapping. “Those of us who care about con-, uh, preserving our unique cultural heritage know that it is a constant and unceasing struggle - even a battle. Yes, a battle - against the depredations of those within our nation who would destroy all that our two founding peoples have fought so hard to create, and against the corrupting influence, from without, of our powerful but ambitious and intemperate southern neighbours. It is for this reason that we have created institutions, and even laws, to protect our culture - from the brave and continuing efforts of our national broadcasting corporation, to the creation of departments in our public universities devoted to the study of our culture, in which I have played my own devoted, if humble, role” - here Zulecken paused again to allow for some polite but unforthcoming murmurs contradicting his unnecessary modesty - “to the Canadian content regulations so valiantly enforced by our cultural authorities, without which many of our most acclaimed Canadian artists would have no audience whatsoever; and finally, of course, to the role played by such institutions as that represented by our gathering here today.” Applause.
“But all of our efforts at sustaining our culture in this way, as earnest as they have been, have unfortunately failed - yes, I say failed - to provide us with a single, defining source to consult when we are led, by those forces foreign and domestic that would divide us, to question what that unique cultural identity really is. The genius behind this frightening insight into such a fundamental oversight” - here Zulecken again paused for another sip of water, allowing the audience to relish his rhetorical flourish - “is the recognition that we who have been labouring to define this unifying identity have been doing so without any authoritative, established, definitive and explicit center of our own. Yes, I can see from the looks on your faces that the scales have begun to fall from your eyes, as they did from mine, when I was first privileged with this clear and ingenious insight.
“How can we have been so blind, I wondered. Between all of the classes, all of the books and magazines, between all of the films and documentaries, between all of the funding and grants and conferences and studies and plays and acts and poems and novels and awards shows, and, uh, researches and journalisms and stories and textbooks and biographies and monographs and indeed commercials, that have been produced to promote this great cultural project, there is no single, definitive, authoritative source for our people to consult when the question of Canadian identity arises.” This time it was a slow shaking of heads and an exchange of worried looks that acknowledged the crowd’s agreement. “There is no Encyclopédie, no great novel, no single work of any kind that we can consult for an answer to this great question. And of course there is no constitution to which we can refer, at least not in the American sense - and there never will be, as long as our loyal, independent heritage is conserved in the, uh, unwritten traditions preserved, ah, unwritten in the minds of our best, that is, I mean to say, ah, minds and leaders.” Sip.
“But fortunately for us, there is a man, the very man who first brought this great Canadian mistake, I mean, uh, gap, to my attention, who is willing, both willing and able to - to fill this gap, as it were, or rather, to, ah, stopper this great cultural hole.” At this point Zulecken, somewhat flustered by the turn his speech had taken, turned to his left, to direct the attention of the audience to the evening’s as yet silent speaker, who was still sitting with a dignified air at the table where Zulecken had left him. “I am speaking, of course, of a man familiar to all of us who are involved in the great Canadian national cultural crusade: Professor Gordon Donald Clark.”
Politely enthusiastic applause broke out as the audience turned its gaze upon their hero, the esteemed scholar and cultural personality, the aforenamed Clark.
To the casual observer, he appeared, naturally enough, to be just another friendly white-collar Canadian approaching the later stages of middle age, with his medium height, his greying and gradually disappearing hair, the somehow comforting paunch protruding from beneath his my-wife-bought-it-for-me sweater, his slightly weathered khakis, and his cheap dark brown leather boating shoes.
But to the informed observer, it was his eyes that held the promise that there was, indeed, a remarkable personality beneath such evident mediocrity. For those eyes, which appeared at first glance in the guise of an inconspicuous washed-out blue, and which seemed to express, with their slightly retreated focus and dim glint, nothing more than that sense of earnest distance which betrays the universal Canadian desire to be liked - such eyes could only be taken by those who knew of the man’s national achievements to be, by virtue of their evident banality, deeply deceptive.
For where, the observer had to ask, was there any indication in their humble appearance, that from behind those eyes stared the brain of a man who, in his youth, had won the silver medal upon graduating from the University of Toronto’s famous Albert College, and who as a student had had the rare honour of having been tutored jointly by those great eminences of intellectual fame, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye? Should there not be some sign of a redoubtable, dominating personality in the gaze of a man who had since the age of 28 been a tenured professor at that very same college, who had for decades been a leading figure in his chosen academic specialty, Canadian Literature, and whose renown was unmatched amongst CanLit professors across the country? Why was there no mark in his sensitive brow of his deep connection to the land, which he had expressed in his many groundbreaking articles on the subject of nature and landscape in the Canadian novel? For what reason was there no indication in his bearing or his countenance that this was a man who had won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction, not once, or twice, but three times, and who had even met the Queen once at Rideau Hall in Ottawa?
Surely, faced with the fact of such weak eyes on such a celebrated man, the observer had to conclude that the answer to this paradox must lie in his own internal failure of judgment, in his own personal incapacity to recognize the signs of true greatness; and it must be the limitations of his own intelligence which cause him to see only cheerful mediocrity where so many awards, and indeed induction into nothing less than the nation’s pantheon, that elevated institution nominated with grand quixocitism the Order of Canada, proved without question that there must be much more dwelling somewhere within the acclaimed man than his apparent ordinariness, and his habitually sweet confusion, would indicate.
In response to the applause, Clark slowly inclined his head, as though to suggest that he did not deserve such recognition, but at the same time to acknowledge that he politely accepted the fact that the audience genuinely believed he did.
Suddenly, however, he redirected his gaze, with something approaching a stern look, towards Zulecken, who had joined in the applause, but had unfortunately kept his hands too close to the microphone as he had done so. As a result, the heavy moderator’s own enthusiastic clapping was reverberating painfully and awkwardly around the room. Zulecken, though, mistakenly took Clark’s attention as a sign that he should continue clapping, and so only redoubled his efforts. Indeed, he began to drown out the applause of the audience, and many stopped clapping in order to put their hands to better use - that is, to protect their abused ears. Finally, Clark was driven to raise and lower his outstretched right hand, glaring angrily as he sent the unfortunate signal to a confused Zulecken, who only redoubled his adulatory efforts before he finally stopped clapping on his own account, and turned to face the audience, which stared at him in stunned silence.
“Professor Clark’s many accomplishments in the field of Canadian Literature require no recounting before the members of our Society,” Zulecken continued, “but it is of course conventional to list some of any speaker’s accomplishments nonetheless, and it is my great pleasure to be in a position to carry out this traditional duty. There are, of course, too many achievements to recount in the brief time we have available tonight, and so, sadly, I will cite only those works most relevant to the matter at hand, in order to limit the length of this introduction.” Some applause.
“Professor Clark first came to prominence as a contributor to our nation’s cultural self-awareness with his stunning first book, The Median is the Message: Canada’s International Literary Reputation, which bravely investigated the cunning manner in which Canadian authors have spread their unnoticed influence all over the world, eschewing the blunt instrument of writing so-called “great” works, and thus by writing “mediocre” works carrying out a sophisticated critique of that, uh, outdated colonial fiction of hierarchical superiority in the evaluation of literature, so selfishly abused by our self-promoting southern neighbours in the establishment of their competitive form of literary fame and the correspondingly vulgar form of their unfortunately vast influence.”
Particularly pleased with that one, Zulecken rewarded himself with another sip of water, as he let the impact of his words sink in to his evidently stunned audience.
“And, as though he intended with sublimity to stun our nation out of its unreflective apathy, by confronting Canadians with too much to consider at once, this first work of the young Professor Clark, which sent shockwaves throughout the emerging institution of Canadian Studies, was followed a mere eight years later by the equally brilliant and groundbreaking From Me to Thee to We: The Role of National Unity in Literary Representations of Canadian Identity, a remarkable work which established in a new critical language the connection between Canada’s unique brand of cultural nationalism, which combines keeping us together into both an end and a means, and the literary representation of its people.” A sip from Zulecken, and squinting contemplation from everyone else.
“But as great as these two seminal works were, it was Professor Clark’s next contribution to the Canadian literary community that was destined to utterly change our understanding of the crucial role played by nature and the landscape in Canadian literature. I’m speaking, of course, of the even more seminal Peace, Order and Good Wonderment: The Use of Awe in the Representation of Landscape in Canadian Literature, which has been a standard reference work in Canadian Literature courses since its publication.
“And most recently, of course, there is his Governor General’s Award-winning masterpiece, Now You GG, Now You Don’t: The Ups and Downs of Fame in Canadian Literary Biography, which charts with exceptional circumspection the commanding position that is held by our national awards system as it guides the establishment of literary reputation in the self-perception of our nation.” Sip.
“Half of any one of these works,” continued Zulecken, “would have been enough to earn tenure and establish a significant presence on the CanLit stage. But taken together, and even excluding his many articles and conference papers, they have established Professor Clark as the leading authority on our nation’s literature. That great accomplishment, however, has not been enough for this industrious figure, and it leads me to the subject that has brought us together on this historic occasion.
“For Professor Clark, after many years of contemplation, has come to the radical and, if I may, revolutionary conclusion that the study of fiction cannot offer a complete account of Canadian identity.
“He has seen that what is missing in this analysis is an account, a comprehensive account, of real Canadian lives, real Canadian stories - and especially of the way everyday, ordinary Canadians conduct and, crucially, describe themselves. And it is for this reason that he has conceived his latest project, the grand cultural project for the better understanding of our national identity, and, indeed, for the betterment of our nation, which he is here tonight to announce to the public formally and for the first time.”
Here Zulecken paused, taking another sip of water and allowing the importance of the grand undertaking to sink in to the sympathetic audience, which had at once grown silent and restless - a sure sign, Zulecken was convinced, that his words had achieved their intended stunning effect.
“And so, without further ado, I would like to make way for a description of this great endeavour by the great man who will himself undertake it, and who just happens to be the Lieutenant-Governor of our distinguished Society - Professor Gordon Donald Clark!”
Whether it was because of the rhetorical flourish with which he delivered these rousing final words, or because Zulecken began at the same time to move away from the microphone and towards his seat, the audience was once again roused, and raised its heads to welcome the doughty leader with vigorous applause.
Clark rose with some impatience from his seat and, gracefully squeezing his relatively modest paunch past the portly Zulecken, approached the lectern, upon which he placed the pages of his speech. As the applause ceased, he began to speak.
No one beyond the first row, however, could hear him, for the microphone was set too low. Blushing at the mistake, the humble Clark tried awkwardly to glance with a mixture of apology at the crowd before him and anger at the startled Zulecken behind him. Seeing what was wrong, the also blushing Zulecken made an awkward attempt to rise, as though he were going to approach the microphone and adjust it himself. Clark, however, stopped him with a look and clumsily raised the microphone, with the instrument emitting the obligatory squeaking and crumpling sounds.
“HELLO?” Clark bellowed, far too loudly, into the now properly adjusted microphone. “CAN YOU HEAR ME?” The crowd, some of whom had once again placed their hands over their ears for protection, nodded and murmured their affirmation, and one man near the back even found the courage to shout “IT’S TOO LOUD!” Still embarrassed, but gathering his pride and composure, Clark spoke again, this time more carefully, and in a milder tone: “Is this better?” Heads nodded, murmuring ceased, hands were removed from ears, and Clark, his dignity recovered, arranged the pages of his speech with a professional smack on the lectern and began to speak.
“It is always a pleasure, as a scholar, to receive funding after successful submission,” began the professor, “of a cultural proposal, especially in an era when politicians place more value on things than on culture.” This introduction drew loud performative applause from the audience, many of whom took collective action by spontaneously curling their lips, and furrowing their brows.
“And I am very pleased to say that the great and crucial project which I am about to undertake has received generous support from various official agencies. This affirmation, of the deep and abiding connection between policy and the production of culture, shows that while our system may be under threat, it has life in it yet, and all is not lost in the great battle we fight, armed with that which is mightier than the sword, if not bloodier.” Applause. “I say we, to include everyone here - not just the artists, but everyone who participates in guarding our culture, by reading and writing and attending talks such as this.” Light applause. “And it is a battle, and we are without question standing on guard for our country, what with the onslaughts from without, and from within, that would surely overwhelm us if it were not for our deliberate and systematic efforts to protect our people from foreign, or alien, rather, cultural influences.” Some serious murmurs and nods of assent emanated from the audience, clearly excited that this was a speaker who would not hold back from articulating the high importance of the issues at stake in the activities of their Society.
“But insofar as it is a battle to defend our culture and our identity and indeed our unity, we must have a united answer to the question: what is that identity?
“As many of you know, I have devoted my life to answering that question, discovering our identity in the creative representation of Canada in literature, in fiction, that is, in cultural representations of our nation and our people. And without question, we all agree, that the objects of cultural production - poems, short stories, novels, films, paintings, and such - play a crucial role in the establishment of our cultural identity, the way we see and describe ourselves.
“But some time ago, I had a disturbing revelation, one morning as I went for a walk in the snow. The study of fictional Canadian identity, to which I had devoted my life, I realized, would be of limited value - if it could not be compared with the study of fact! In other words, without a comparison between the representation of the landscape, for example, in the depiction of characters in novels, and the representation of landscape in the words of ordinary, actually living Canadians - it would be impossible to see if the fiction reflected the reality, or had indeed had any impact whatsoever on the reality of actual Canadian life.” At this pronouncement, the sombre audience was moved to solemn head-shaking and serious shoe-contemplating.
“The need to fill this gap, to provide this comparison, became something like an obsession with me. The traditional representations of Canada - the Canada of novels and poems and the NFB and the national news and elementary school classrooms and everything from The Beachcombers to Danger Bay- would not be authoritative without being informed by the representations of ordinary Canadians in their ordinary lives. And so I formulated a plan, a project, to undertake a great journey across the land, in search of real stories and real people, to make contact with real ordinary Canadians, whose words and deeds could complement, and indeed complete, the great cultural task to which I have devoted so many years. And it is the announcement of the beginning of that project which we are here to commemorate tonight.”
At this point Clark paused to clear his throat, and an enthusiastic listener in the back of the room began applauding. He stopped almost immediately, however, when he realized he was alone in his act, and so quickly hid his hands behind his back as he confronted a few superciliously turned heads.
“Now, I had considered the option of delivering this speech informally, going into some of the details of the journey and its goals, and leaving out the finer details and articulations required for a fuller understanding of my project. But then I decided that - given the fine nature of the members of this society, which includes some of the leading lights of our country’s intellectual and cultural establishment - or community, rather - I decided that I would instead deliver an address worthy of such highly accomplished people.” Here Clark paused, and every member of the audience stared deliberately forward, as though to confirm that he or she knew that he or she was surely included in Clark’s description of this elite, but also that he or she had the good grace not to appear overly proud or self-conscious at this recognition. “And so I will read for you the text used in my various applications for the funding which will fund my great - ah, expedition, if I may, in search of real Canadian stories.”
At this point Clark retrieved from beneath the neckline of his sweater an exquisite set of reading glasses, complete with thick, black rims and strung with a thick, black cord, so that they could be hung around his neck when he was not wearing them on his nose. Though in fact he had no optical need for the glasses, they were nonetheless necessary to Clark, affording him an opportunity to look dignified as he read, and to look powerful when he chose, his gaze directed at one moment down at his paper, and the next, before you knew it, over the rims of the glasses with his head inclined. It was indeed a powerful technique, and one that Clark had mastered over the years. Unlike many of his colleagues, including the aggressive Zulecken, who attempted this trick with ordinary glasses, Clark knew that its highest powers could only be invoked with reading glasses, given their size and shape, and the difference they presented from the wearer’s normal appearance.
But though they were an essential part of his academic armour, they were yet a cause of occasional concern to Clark, whenever he fell into one of those secret moods so familiar to all honest professors, tormented by the possibility that he was in fact a fraud. When he looked back on the path of his career, he sometimes wondered about the impact these devices had had on his success. Without them, would he have impressed so many professors when he was still a mere undergraduate? Would he have been offered a tenured position at so young an age? Would so many of his books have been published and been so well promoted by suitably impressed publishers? Would he have been asked to chair so many committees? Would the awarders of grants and prizes have considered him worthy of so many grants and prizes if he had not so much looked the part of what in his country passed for an intellectual?
Fortunately for the force of his present performance, however, such doubts did not haunt our hero’s consciousness as he placed the prized glasses with a practiced flourish on his high nose, the cord dangling down elegantly on both sides of his vaguely patrician visage, nor did any internal criticism disrupt his consciousness as he then dropped his eyes to the papers on the lectern before him. And then, as everyone waited for the briefest of moments and turned all their attention upon Clark in his silence, the professor quickly raised his suddenly piercing blue eyes over those thick black rims and those unprescribed half-lenses and glared sternly at the immediately captivated audience. Only then, when he was sure of having established his proper authority, did Clark again lower his eyes to his papers and begin to read from them, speaking in a slightly deeper, more portentous voice than he used naturally.
“There is no question that there is no question of more importance in the Canadian cultural and political landscape than the question of Canadian identity. From the moment of our culture’s emergence in the conflict between its two founding nations, and in the shadow of our dominating imperial neighbour to the south, the importance of addressing the question of Canadian identity has been universally acknowledged across the land, from sea to sea to sea, as crucial not only for the purpose of sustaining national unity, but also for protecting the distinct cultural and political interests of our two founding peoples.
“The question of Canadian identity, in other words, is a question of survival, establishing a unity of form and content between the history of our struggle for the physical development of our nation and for the cultural development of our national unity.” Some applause.
“The material importance of this question is evident in the creation of a vanguard of public institutions devoted to the protection and promotion of Canadian identity, especially on those boundaries where it is most at risk - our cultural Mounties, as it were. These brave groups range from the Department of Canadian Heritage to the Canada Council for the Arts, to the Office of the Minister for Interprovincial Dialogue, to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, to the recently established Federal Bureau for the Investigation of Foreign Internet Content, to the National Film Board, with its mandate to represent Canada to Canadians, to the Commission for Textbooks to Preserve Canadian Tradition, created to protect the transmission of our cultural inheritance across the generations; and of course they include the Institute for the Study of Canadian Identity, the Organization for Canadian Cultural and Social Cooperation, the Canadian Historical Association for the Promotion of Cultural Sovereignty, the Victorian Society for Canada’s Royal Heritage, and the Royal Canadian Commission for United Diversity, to name a few.
“And finally, but most importantly, in any act of cultural communication there is always already the crucial defense provided by the transparent hand of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as it preserves and strengthens our social and economic structures in the face of the neverending threat of invasion, of the infiltration of our national airwaves by foreign content, and clears the cultural atmosphere, the very air of ideas that we breathe, as it were, of the pollution of our cultural purity, commanding broadcasters to conserve Canadian culture by providing a minimum percentage of Canadian content, and safeguarding our official Programs of National Interest, programs such as the Junos and the Geminis, or the East Coast Music Awards and their regional counterpart, the Canadian Country Music Awards, programs which as we all know are the main vehicles we have for telling Canadian stories.
“A further role of crucial importance in the defence of Canada’s culture and identity has been played, and continues to be played, by the establishment of Canadian Studies and Canadian Literature programs in universities and colleges across the country, and indeed in universities abroad, with their significant scholarly output in journals of high academic standing, including the Journal of Canadian Studies; the National Journal of Canadian Studies; the International Journal of Canadian Studies; the Global Journal of Canadian Studies; the Multidisciplinary Journal of Canadian Studies; the Interdisciplinary Journal of Canadian Studies; Canadiana; Canadian Studies: Foreign Publications and Theses, and its supplements; ACNJDG, the journal supported by the Australian-Canadian-New Zealand Studies Librarians” Discussion Group of the Canadiast Association of College & Research Libraries and Repositories; the Canadian Studies Guide; Canadiana in the United States; the Canadian Studies Associations Monthly; CanLinks: Directory of Web Resources Relevant to Canadian Studies; the Journal of the Association for the Export of Canadian Culture; Identity: The Journal of Canadian Literature; the Theatre and Repertory Arts for Social Harmony in CanLit Journal; Current Studies in Canadian Cultural Production and Protection; and of course the Directory to Canadian Studies in Canada and Abroad.
“And to our further benefit, these publications are complemented by the work carried out by important cultural and scholarly institutions, including the Institute for the Study of Canada; the International Council for Canadian Studies; the Association for Canadian Studies; the British Association for Canadian Studies; the Association Française d’études Canadiennes; the Association for Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand; and the Society for the Conservation of Canadian Identity in Canadian Studies, to name only a small fraction of these committed organizations.
“But the need to address the question of our national identity and its survival has not been exhausted by these public, institutional, and scholarly organizations. A further need for cultural activity has been met through the creation of many government-funded NGOs devoted to the investigation of Canadian identity, beginning with the founding in 1868 of our own Canadian Society for Heritage, Identity, and Tradition, and followed in subsequent generations by the creation of the Canadian Identity Council; the Cultural Council of Canadian Identity; the Canadian Cultural Defence League; the Council of Canadians; the famous Colony Club of Canada; the Sovereignty Association for Canadian Dominion; the Toronto Institute for the Furtherance of Anglo-Scottish Loyalist Cultural Inheritance; the United Daughters of the Canadian Confederation; the Macintyre Society of Concerned Canadians; the Macdonald Collective for the Conservation of Canadian Culture and Tradition; the MacNab Organization for the Collection of Canadiana; the Macfarlane Social Association for Canadian Culture; the Cameron Macgregor Canadian News Media Institute; the Farquharson Canadian Media Association; the Macpherson Club for Canadian Journalists; the Heath Campbell and Clark Mackintosh Association for the Protection of Canadian Journalism; the MacCorkindale Canadian Reporters Association for Protection of Cultural Integrity in Journalistic Practice in Canadian Journalism; the Stewart Ross Buchanan Club for Canadian Tradition; the Graham Robertson MacO’Shannaig Society for the Protection of Canadian Unity; and of course, but not finally, the Alistair Corstorphine Munro Macgillegowie Gruamach MacCeallaich Carstarphen MacAÕchallies Dunnachie Macandeoir Gilfillan Maccaishe Cattanach Macthomas Arroll Reidfurd Macearachar Canadian News Media Society, to name but a few of the most influential such societies.”
“All of this effort expended on Canadian identity has, however, focused not on ordinary Canadians, but rather on those who represent Canadian identity, and their representations. That is, this sort of work takes as its subject the films of and by Canadian culture workers, the dances and poems and stories and novels and paintings and sculptures produced by Canadian arts labourers - but not the acts of other Canadians who, because they do not make their own representations, are ultimately unrepresented in our national identity discourse. In other words, none of these institutions and journals and associations actually takes into account in their account of Canadian identity the very account that real Canadians would give were they called to account on this fundamental question. Which is to say, the national discussion of Canadian identity takes as its starting point the products of Canadian identity, and the producers of those products, rather than beginning with the very ordinary people who are the ostensible subjects of these objects, with the very actual Canadian identities in themselves.
“And in those cases where Canadians who are not fictional, or the producers of fictional Canadians, have been accounted for - in works such as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography; Canadian Personalities; Canada’s Who’s Who; Well Known People Who Happen to be Canadian; Memorable Canadians; Distinct Canadians; Debrett’s Illustrated Guide to the Canadian Establishment; Canadians of Distinction; Famous Canadians You’ve Never Heard Of; Contemporary Canadian Biographies; Like a Roch: The Most Influential Juno Winners on the International Stage; The 50 Greatest Canadian Landscape Poets and Portraits of All Time; The Illustrated History of Canadians with an International Reputation; and of course the seminal Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography, edited by Stewart Wallace and W.A. McKay - in all such works of non-fiction, the focus has been on Canadians who have achieved some success, and all such works have therefore failed to reflect the shared values and beliefs of authentic, truly Canadian Canadians.
“It is in the context of this politicized elision of the ontological grounds for an at once comprehensive and inclusive liminalization of both the discourse and the discursive construction of Canadian identity, in this simulated and simultaneously compromised metasimulacrum of the struggle for identity in the context of the struggle for the land, in this winter of the real, in which the material conditions for the production of Canadian culture and the establishment of Canadian identity are subject to an ideologically antimaterialist phenomenological bracketing that manifests itself in the hypostatization of the privileged representation of “the Canadian people” in the place of the Canadian people, that this proposal has been formulated, in accordance with those principles of cultural redistribution according to which the primary labour of identity-form(ul)ation and self-recognition is understood to be carried out in the work of the ordinary Canadian undergoing the rigours of self-substantiation in the world, rather than in the substitute labour of representative performance, that is, in the collective self established in public through the work of the public, rather than in the classical bourgeois psychoanalytic internal private space of the self which through its acts of artifice is taken as a mirror held up to nature, thus promoting the pretence that it is to the products of culture, rather than the ordinary producers of culture, that critical activity is most effectively directed, when in fact it is the opposite that is required in this, our radical effort to promote change and social justice.”
At this crucial juncture, Clark paused and, without raising his head, raised his eyes instead to impress upon his audience the force of his position. Its effect, he was pleased to see, had been profound: there was not a head in the house that was not bowed in a mixture of respect and contemplation; and, he was pleased to hear, the silent recognition of the grave importance of his project was unanimous.
In an even deeper and more ponderous tone, Clark continued. “The research for this project will be carried out in the form and in the course of a journey across the nation. Just as Canadians once built a great railroad from one end of the country to the other in order to unite the provinces, I will myself cross the country, from the Maritimes to the West Coast, interviewing Canadians and participating in traditional Canadian activities, like canoeing.
“The result of this project will be a book of interviews and analysis entitled Our Home and Narrative Land: Real Canadian Stories and Real Canadian Identity. Bringing to bear my particular expertise in narrative construction, I intend to link Canadians together by linking their stories of Canadian identity together. The structure of the book will follow the course of my journey west, with each chapter focused around a different event and a different part of the country. The unity of form and content evident in this narrative structure and the course and purpose of the gathering of its constituent narratives, is intended to contribute to the defence, perpetuation, and conservation of Canadian cultural tradition, in the pursuit of that vision of national unity upon which our culture depends for its existence - and its identity.”
Clark, having reached the end of his submission, and the climax of his speech, stopped speaking, and looked up, expecting the appropriate applause, but saw that his audience, rather than being moved to a state of excitement, had only been drawn deeper into the profound respect it had displayed when he first paused. Every single head, as though in prayer, was now bowed, and the crowd’s attention was so focused that even the sombre, nasal rattling that emanated from one or two obviously overworked professionals who had fallen asleep, could not disturb their collective respectful concentration.
Zulecken, however, seated at the table on the stage, appeared to believe that applause were, for one reason or another, more appropriate, and he began to clap, at which point the audience raised its communal head with a snap and began to clap along.
When the thankful applause began to dwindle, Clark removed his glasses with a flourish and, gesturing with them in his left hand, continued: “It is my great pleasure to announce formally to you tonight, my friends, that my project has received more than enough funding to make it a reality, and indeed enough to allow me to take along a research assistant, to aid me in the collection of research material and to accompany me on my historic journey.
“Of course, when I announced the opportunity to participate in such an unprecedented project, I received dozens of applications from our nation’s top graduate students in Canadian Studies and Canadian Literature. I found it difficult to choose from amongst their excellent, accomplished, and devoted number. It was my duty, however, to choose, and so, in order to complement my own Anglophone heritage, and so that the research for Our Home and Narrative Land will be undertaken in accordance with the principle of uniting our two national solitudes, I have chosen as my assistant Monsieur Frédéric Gaston, a highly recommended, and francophone, doctoral student from the Université de Montréal, who happens to be here with us tonight. A hand for Monsieur Gaston!” At this, Clark gestured to the back of the room, where he had asked Gaston to stand, anticipating the theatrical effect of a roomful of turning heads, and the visible revelation of the identity of his trusted assistant.
It was a well-staged plan on Clark’s part, for that evening the young Gaston was indeed perfectly suited, in appearance and manner, for the project. Though Gaston was rather on the short side, he exuded the kind of raffish, self-aware charm, with just a hint of sensuality, at once overt and complicated by an intimation of timidity, to ensure the effect was in no way threatening, which characterized the typical young, sophisticated Quebecois francophone from a family of means - in the imagination, at least, of middle-aged, middle-class men from Ontario.
To encourage this impression, while anticipating his debut, Gaston had that evening dressed to great effect in a white cashmere turtleneck under a very expensive tan jacket worn over tan slacks with a black belt, an outfit that to the Canadians assembled would have seemed vaguely appropriate for a European intellectual. To complete the ensemble, he wore thick, black-rimmed glasses which drew attention to his grey, piercing eyes, and conferred a certain intellectual weight to the serious expression he habitually wore, accentuated in part by a slight and unaffected habitual inclination of his head.
Although the young Quebecker played up to the various stereotypes perpetuated by the Anglo Clark, his supervisor on this project and thus the gatekeeper of his future academic career, it was not as a cover for any academic weakness. Gaston was in truth a serious and intelligent young man of significant accomplishment for his age, and was held generally to be a scholar of great promise.
And yet, for all his success, and although he had a typically French pride in his own capacities, Gaston was nonetheless fundamentally troubled, for beneath all his success and promise, he harboured a secret with respect to his identity, a secret he had been unwilling to convey to his Anglophone benefactor, given Clark’s sweetly conceited ambition to undertake a uniting of solitudes through cultural discourse.
For the reality was that, although Gaston had indeed been born and raised in Quebec, he had not spent his early years in the leafy confines of Outremont, as Clark believed, but rather in the decidedly unfashionable rough-and-tumble of the Beauce. His father, Jacques, a boozy magouilleur, had made his living smuggling cigarettes into Quebec and engaging in a wide variety of other activities of unquestionable illegality. Raised in this colourful environment, Gaston had grown up learning to navigate between the interests of the police on the one hand and his father’s “business associates” on the other, discovering at a tender age how to smuggle diamonds across the border in his teddy bear and how to bury stolen jewellery in a manner that would protect it against the elements for a full winter. There had been no hint of anything intellectual or cultural in his father’s house, and little Gaston had never even read a book, until his mother - who had fled her homeland shortly after Gaston’s birth - suddenly returned to the Beauce, having made her fortune by a strategic marriage abroad, and picked up her son and packed him off to France, silencing the strategic, disingenuous protests of his secretly relieved father with a big wad of cash. Thus it was in France that Gaston had spent the formative years of his young manhood, in the fashionable Montmartre district of Paris, and it was in France that he had attended the prestigious École normale supérieur, before he had returned to Canada, and Quebec, only in the past year, to begin work on his Ph.D.
And so while Gaston was a Quebecker by birth, and a scion of the workmanlike criminality of the lower classes in the Beauce, he had become a Parisian at heart - or so, at least, he believed. When he had applied for the position of Clark’s research assistant, he had not lied to the old man exactly, but had certainly dressed and spoken the part of what the professor took to be a typical young educated Outremonter, and had creatively tailored his CV to that effect. From that point Gaston had simply let Clark persist in his fantasy regarding Gaston’s identity, so crucial for the symbolism of Clark’s projected narrative. And it was this identity that had made Clark’s careful plan for unveiling of Gaston, the clever French assistant, the very climax of his speech to the Canadian Society’s typical crowd of Torontarian Anglophones, and had thus intended to elevate Gaston himself symbolically into the physical manifestation of the professor’s commitment to promoting Canada from its two points of view.
But at the moment, Gaston’s well-designed appearance and the various truths of his identity were, much to Clark’s dismay, rendered entirely irrelevant. For, in spite of the professor’s carefully orchestrated plan to reveal the carefully selected identity of his assistant to the assembled audience, when their eyes came to rest upon the back of the room, following Clark’s gesture, they did not come to rest on the figure of Gaston. Confusingly, and in fact shockingly, they came to rest instead on the warmly lit, decently painted figures of those great Canadian industrial magnates whose portraits happened to be hung at the back of Hall, and whose carefully preserved visages stared back at the confused audience with looks of rather backhanded authority, having been portrayed with that self-conscious attempt at a magisterial manner peculiar to those whose success is achieved at a provincial distance from the heart of the empire.
Gaston, in other words, was not there.
For the young francophone, who had not had the benefit of a seat to fortify his posture during Clark’s speech, had decided to head outside quickly for some fresh air, and a cigarette, and when the moment of his introduction came, Gaston, instead of being in his appointed position, was still outside, smoking, having cynically overestimated the length of the professor’s speech.
This made for an awkward moment for Clark, whose face became slightly flushed as the audience began to mutter and shift, and even, here and there, to titter, as they turned back towards him. Zulecken didn’t help matters by making another aborted move to stand and do something, even though no one, least of all Zulecken himself, knew what it was he intended to do.
It was during this moment of confusion that a man who had been sitting towards the back of the audience suddenly stood up and said, in a low, booming voice: “I too have an announcement to make this evening.”
This was followed by yet another a moment of confusion, as Clark raised his head in surprise, forgetting merely to raise his eyes and stare over the rims of his prop glasses. Removing them awkwardly, with the cord almost getting stuck on his ears, he peered across the crowd at the mysterious speaker, when a look of surprise and pleasure spread on his face in place of a blush. “Well - yes - most certainly, sir. Please come up, come up!”
As the man made his commanding way past the knees and handbags crowding the aisle, Clark took the opportunity to introduce him. “Ladies and - ladies and gentlemen, we have been graced tonight by the presence of a real Canadian celebrity - none other than the great Canadian poet - Hugh Duncan!” At this, the crowd’s confused murmuring was replaced by an audible gasp, and an exchange of excited glances, as the assembled members of the Society realized that what was unfolding before them was indeed an historic event. Someone even dared to snap a picture with his phone, though he immediately incurred the stern glances of those around him, who felt that such an act did not accord with the dignity of the moment, and the offender modestly returned the phone to his pocket with that peculiar speed and efficiency conferred only by embarrassment.
The man who approached the lectern was, indeed, a poet of great renown, in Canadian literary circles, and the kind of public figure whose name was uttered with special reverence on arts programs. Even when his name was printed, as it often was in the arts sections of the national papers, it was inevitably accompanied by a rhetorical flourish intended to invoke a special dignity. Duncan was “revered”, his works were “classic”, part of “Canadian tradition”, and of course “historic”, just as Duncan’s life was “storied”. And although they were rather excessive even by the adulatory standards of most Canadian cultural discourse when icons of national importance are invoked, these accolades were nonetheless justified in the most material of terms, for the indomitable poet, another hero of our story, was nothing less than a twelve-time winner of the Governor General’s award for poetry, and had been a venerable stalwart of national Canadian culture for an unbroken period of more than five decades.
It was Duncan who had first “gone platinum” in Canadian poetry, having sold more than five hundred copies of a single book, an accomplishment which would have been enough to raise him to high cultural status, but which had made him a superstar because it also happened to be his very first publication. This book, The Height of the Cedars, had garnered excellent reviews from all three of the right people, especially for the poem “Beaver on the Rapids Near Lake Nipigon under the Borealis”, which was instantly hailed as a classic. The book included other hits, amongst them a poem that became known as “the other national anthem”, “Hurrah for the Land of the Forests Grand”, the sentiment of which was only enhanced by the piercing social critique of the poem that followed it, “Bat, Bat, Come Under my Hat”. And for readers more interested in less doughty matters, there was also the rousing domestic poetry of “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese”, with its classic opening line:
Will you please let me go, Ma, To McIntyre's, to buy a Sofa
…and “In an Old Barn with a Solitary Woodsman During the Potato Harvest”, with its paternal criticism of the dangers presented by “harsh, winter-hidden, ignoble sloth”.
Duncan marched with a dignified air towards the lectern, his tall, spare frame matching the elegance of his fashionable buff suit and his wavy grey hair. In his mid-seventies, Duncan possessed a legendary strength and vitality that at once impressed and intimidated men thirty years his junior. He leapt onto the stage with the celerity of a natural athlete, which indeed he had been, in his youth, when he had captained the hockey team of King’s University, leading it to a triumphant third-place finish in the national college hockey championships two years in a row. As Duncan approached the lectern, Clark backed away reverently and seated himself at the table.
Though no one saw it, since their attention was fixed on Duncan, Zulecken had assumed a worried look that was matched by the dismay evident on the face of the young Gaston, who from the rear had entered the room just in time to see Duncan ascending the stage.
There were a number of reasons for Gaston’s complex discomfort at this turn of events. For one, Gaston sensed that Duncan was going to interfere somehow in Clark’s project, and resented the intrusion, which of course no one, including Clark, and least of all a mere graduate student like Gaston, would be able to resist and survive, professionally speaking. Besides being a man of great reputation in Canadian discourse, Duncan was notoriously overbearing, the type of man who emanated a naive moral sanctimony buttressed by a sincere belief in his own symbolic role, in the Coleridgean or even in the Hegelian sense, in the course of Canadian history, which he took himself to be marking with every step he took, figuratively and even literally speaking.
For another, Gaston considered Duncan’s verse to be terrible, not only in itself, but also for the way that its role in official national cultural discourse meant it defined what counted as Canadian poetry, and therefore determined what kind of poetry poets needed to produce in order to get the government grants that got them published, and got their work into anthologies and helped them win prizes guarded by a literary culture that Gaston, in his kinder moments, described to his French colleagues as being defined by cultural insularity and nepotism.
Duncan certainly symbolized Canadianness, Gaston thought bitterly, in the sense that he was a living embodiment of the systemic perpetuation of mediocrity in Canadian letters. How could one, such as Gaston himself, who had studied abroad, especially at so demanding an institution such as the École normale supérieure, who had survived the gruelling khâgne and been immersed in the grand history of French and European literature, be expected to read with reverence such platitudinous doggerel as Duncan’s famous “Digman’s Song”, with “classically Canadian” lines like:
Turn, plow, the clods, Turn under, plow, Turn under
…with its clunky, affected, and pastoral “worker” romanticism? And accept this as “historic” Canadian work? Clods, indeed! They needed not to be turned under, to become the soil for still more clods: better to abandon the field entirely.
But the final and most pressing reason that Gaston had for resenting Duncan’s presence was the uncomfortable fact that the young Frenchman had recently, at least in his own estimation, seduced a very pretty young woman, who just so happened to be Duncan’s 26-year-old granddaughter, and who just so happened not to understand that Gaston had only meant to seduce her just the once. She had taken the affair badly, and Gaston knew that if her vain grandfather heard about it, the young scholar’s future in the tiny world of Canadian literary academia might well be cut as short as he had cut his relationship with the belle Lucy Duncan.
On the stage, Duncan adopted a heroic stance behind the lectern and expertly adjusted the microphone to his superior height with an efficient jerk.
“Of course,” he began, in his booming voice, “I heard of Professor Clark’s proposal shortly after he began circulating his submissions. And I stand here before you to do my duty, that is, to report that there was, I am ashamed to say, as a Canadian, that there was some cynical opposition to his plan, especially amongst those with vested interests in the halls of Canadian academia and governmentia, if I may be permitted a playful….”
At this point Duncan paused; but whether he did so for effect, or because he had managed in his exuberance to get ahead of his own wit, we will never know, for after a very brief moment he carried on, still booming: “For there are those amongst us who consider themselves to be above us, to be the well-appointed guardians of our culture, who believe themselves to be, as it were, Olympian gods whose incarnation has bestowed upon them both the power and the responsibility to protect those of us who are mere…. In any case, it was communicated to me that amongst those individuals who decide how our collective funds are dispensed, that there was some offence taken at Professor Clark’s proposal for his great project, indeed it was not merely whispered but indeed openly stated, that, that… to openly question the representation of Canadian identity in the work produced by our carefully selected artists and academics, and especially to suggest that there may be a difference between this representation and the reality, was not only naive, but… but also, but also, I was told, injurious, destructive, divisive - divisive! - and an individualist, a suspiciously individualistic attack on the carefully and collectively managed voice and image of Canada - of Canadian - of the activity of generations of committees of appointed cultural, shall we say, directors, of the national identity, who have been mandated to control for the sake of the, of us, the people - and, that Clark’s project is, above all - an American-style attack on Canadian culture! American-style!”
The crowd nervously shuffled its feet and politely contracted its brow, exchanging looks that displayed the shock appropriate to the use of that last phrase, and at the same time looks of polite perplexity, as no one was yet sure exactly what Duncan was in fact trying to say.
“Yes, my fellow Canadians, they argued, these grant mandarins, these council panjandrums, these, if I may, these funding functionaries, they argued that the professor’s argument implied that he was questioning the representation of Canadian culture, the very formulation of Canadian identity, for which they were paid to stand on guard! Furthermore, they argued that he was invoking a, a naive distinction between life and art, that the work of our cultural institutions was meant to influence and sustain the national vision of national life, to represent the Canada we want Canada to be, and that to threaten this with unmediated, and therefore unauthoritative interaction with the unedited words of ordinary Canadians was to threaten unity, national unity, to threaten Canada itself!
“So there I was - I, Hugh Duncan - being told that talking to Canadians is a threat to the very concept of Canadian identity. I, who have, in my own humble way, endeavoured, and tried, and worked, and fought, yes fought, throughout my career, and all of my writings, to voice the, uh, the voice of Canadians…. Well - I was being told that my support for Professor Clark was itself suspect - yes, I was being told that I, myself, was promoting, perpetuating an - an American agenda - American! - by supporting Clark’s project to protect Canada!” Here Duncan paused, surveying the shocked crowd, and he was pleased to see that his last words had effectively roused their indignation.
Then, with excellent timing, he proceeded to magnify indignation with insult: “And it occurred to me that, by saying that Professor Clark’s project was American, and that I was American for supporting it, yes, it occurred to me, as I sat in those offices in Ottawa, that, given the fact that Professor Clark is the Lieutenant-Governor of this great Society, well, it then followed that these officials were calling the Canadian Society for Heritage, Identity, and Tradition - American! And that, my friends, they were, furthermore and finally, calling all of you, calling all of us - American!”
Pandemonium would have been the appropriate word to describe the scene that followed, if the audience had been moved to a passionate rejection of this great insult, instead of curling their lips and frowning in a united expression of moral indignation, and shaking their fists in the air and shouting, instead of clenching their fingers and waiting for someone else to break the silence of the deeply offended. What could be worse, especially for a Society formed for the purposes of protecting Canadian identity from foreign influences, than to be accused of being American? For it did not matter what was really meant by that claim; what mattered was that the person or institution so charged was being attacked not merely on moral grounds, but also as a legitimate authority on, or as a legitimate example of, Canadian society.
The insult was, indeed, so deep and pointed, that the younger Margaret Campbell was driven to point her nose in the air, and remark loudly to the unseen cultural adversaries, “Well, I never!”, to which her more experienced mother, replacing a flask in her handbag and adjusting the box on her head, added by whispering, a little too loudly, “The motherfuckers!”
Clark himself, who had heard of the internal battles fought over his funding, and felt as deeply insulted as Duncan, but who certainly never would have encouraged any controversy by announcing that fact, put on an expression of dismay as he shook his head slowly, and looked out from the stage at the crowd with a serious expression, all the while hiding his growing fear that what Duncan was doing would cause problems for him in the very near future.
Duncan knew that his words must have had his intended effect on the minds of those who were frowning at him in sympathy, and he proceeded to make himself the conduit of their offended patriotic sensibility. “But did I, in the face of this great perversion of the professor’s project, and this Society’s reputation, did I back down, and rest on the hope they would not spread their insinuation, in lies and whispers, across the land, that here in Toronto, and led by the eminent Professor Clark, was a new American rebellion being formed against the authority of Canadia, I mean Canada, and its appointed servants, its officers promoted to marshal our very culture? Did I, if I may quote from my own poem about the great mythological hero of Canadian history, the mighty Pierre MacDonald, did I do as his family wanted him to, and in the face of his challenge:
Float and pause in the fleecy gauze, Like a bird in a nest of down?
Or did I, like that great hero, instead “Rise through the dome of my aerodrome?” Or did I, as they hoped, shiver, and quail, like a, well, a …. Well, let me assure you, my friends, that I did indeed rise to the challenge, and I pointed out to them that they were themselves being - un-Canadian!” Gasps. “Yes, before those great patrimonial eminences, before those earthly elohim of national culture, those living manifestations of our principles of government, those great deciders of our nature, I, I, I invoked the right of the poet, the poet! Not the funder! Not the council! T o say what counts as Canadian, and what does not!” Applause.
“And what was the point that I had to make, what was the simple observation that I made that shamed them into silence, and provoked them to raise their pens and sign Clark’s project into existence? What did I, standing up for Canadians, like a, a proud beefeater, a noble Mountie, a, a, a very sentinel…. Well, what I did say to them was, that it was un-Canadian to silence the voices of Canadians, and that to prevent us from talking to each other about who we in fact are - that that, in fact, was un-Canadian, and was - yes, I said it to their faces - that that was, in fact - American!” At this, the crowd cheered and clapped, gratified that their hero had shown the courage to take action in the face of cultural injustice, and defend the honour of their society, not to mention that of their venerable Lieutenant-Governor.
As for the great Clark himself, he had joined in the clapping and even nodded slowly to signal his public approval for Duncan’s actions, having privately concluded that the poet simply wanted to let the crowd know what a crucial role his fame and influence had played in bringing Clark’s professorial project to fruition.
The professor, however, could not have been more wrong. “But words,” Duncan continued, “I felt, were not enough, if I were to demonstrate my support for Professor Clark and his historic voyage. And so I decided - I decided that I would join him for the duration of his proposed project, and write a new poem chronicling our great quest, our, if I may, our great unifying journey across the land, from sea to shine - from sea to sea to sea!”
Excited applause and, indeed, a standing ovation, broke out as defiant looks and virtuous expressions of pride were exchanged by all those present - with three notable exceptions, each of whom stood with the crowd and clapped along, but each of whom barely disguised his respective worries at this independent development.
The first exception, of course, was Clark, whose approval had shifted, quite suddenly, to dismay, at the thought that the obstreperous Duncan would be playing a prominent and unpredictable role in the his, Clark’s, carefully constructed drama. It was, after all, his project, a project carefully conceived in accordance within the context of the traditions and purposes of the institution of Canadian Literature, by a professor of Canadian Literature. But now, when Clark did compose, upon the completion of his project, the definitive, central, unifying text on Canadian identity, the achievement would have to be shared with a poet - and a vain poet, at that - who would now write a different account of the same project, and thus destroy its uniting purpose by perpetuating difference within the project itself. And, were it not beneath our respect for his scholastic dignity, we might say that there was something even more troubling to the humble professor: that is, Clark’s mounting realization that he would have to share any media attention with Duncan, and probably be outshone by the charismatic poet and national hero on the national stage.
The second exception to the crowd’s excitement was of course the resourceful but anxious Gaston, whose worries we have already detailed, and which the young man now expressed with a disappointed “câlisse!”
But the third exception to the crowd’s excitement was the saddest of all, a man whose silent, lonely misery had been growing throughout Duncan’s performance.
This lonely sufferer was none other than our forgotten friend Zulecken, the renowned Canadian publisher, who was, not to put too fine a point on it, feeling entirely left out of this truly Canadian project, and indeed much less scrumptious than usual. Clark had always had the glory of the funding and the leadership of the project, of course, but that had not bothered Zulecken so much, for it had been Clark’s idea after all; and he, Zulecken, had at least been given the opportunity to manage the first public announcement of Clark’s purposes, and to do so before the powerful Canadian Society, and thus allowed to associate himself in some way, however minor, with what he knew would be an historic endeavour.
But now, with Duncan participating, who would remember - who even remembered now - that he, Zulecken, had even been at this meeting? That it had been he who had introduced to Canada the final project in the articulation of its national character? No, no one would remember him - they would only remember Duncan’s surprise announcement, which is where the great tale would effectively begin, and he, Zulecken, the mere publisher, would be nothing more than a footnote, if that, in the history of the study of Canada, usurped by an overpowering hero of Canadian culture in whose long shadow he would be forever overlooked.
As Duncan left the lectern and strode back down the centre aisle dividing the applauding crowd, followed by a wave of turned heads and continuous applause, Zulecken sat down behind the table on the stage and saw immediately that, if he were to play any part in Clark’s project, he had to make a decision immediately.
As the crowd slowly began to reseat itself, Zulecken, with a look of sudden determination, began to stand up again. But, alas for our poor hero, as he had done already twice before, he found himself hesitating, and began to sit down again in despair; when suddenly, and to his own internal amazement, he found himself standing up decisively and striding over to the lectern.
The crowd, now fully seated, turned its excited eyes to Zulecken, whose agitation they naturally interpreted as a mirror of their own excitement.
As he confidently approached the lectern, the small publisher seemed to observe himself from an external vantage point. He saw himself stop and grip the lectern firmly with his hands, and begin to speak - but, to his growing horror, he saw himself once again forget to adjust the microphone. This time one or two members of the crowd, more heated and confident than they had been earlier, began to shout at Zulecken, matter-of-factly, that he needed to lower the instrument. Zulecken, suffering from his strange internal division, felt mounting embarrassment at his estranged body’s actions, and feared whatever he would do next would only make the situation worse for his wounded ego.
But after a moment, Zulecken, rather than blushing, found within himself the courage he needed. Returning resolutely to himself, and frowning at the crowd as though it were beneath him, which to his credit it very literally was, our hero began to speak with the confidence suited to his position, loud enough to be heard above the mild din without any magnification.
“Well, ladies and gentleman, we have had a surprise - a great and noble surprise. But I have another surprise for you.” Here he paused significantly and took a sip of water, turning his head in a passive-aggressive manner and glaring over the glass at an astonished Clark.
“So - now I see there will be not one, but two key figures in our cultural landscape who will be undertaking this journey - a great professor of Canadian literature, and a great poet - and that they will be accompanied by a third, the estimable Monsieur Gaston, to represent the other of our two founding peoples. But I see too that there is still something missing - a fourth element necessary to complete the group.” Another sip, and silence from the crowd.
“I am speaking, of course, of the study of the history, broadly understood, and the study of the present, and also the future, equally broadly understood, of Canada, in all its forms and manifestations, real and imaginary, a wide area which ought to be represented in this great project, wide enough indeed to be appropriate for an investigation into the nature of our wide country. I am speaking, of course, of the great field of Canadian Studies. And as a publisher in this field, I feel that it is my right - nay, my duty - to accompany these gentlemen on their quest to discover and to document real Canadian culture, real Canadian identity. Yes, friends, I would like to announce, here and now, that I too will join Clark on his holi- I mean a sabbatical, and go along with Clark and Duncan, contributing what and where I can to their investigations, and producing, at the end, a book of my own which will analyze the results of our work from the perspective of my field. Together, we will be complete, representing all aspects of the study of Canadian society, in our investigation of it!”
Here Zulecken paused, awaiting an excited reception equivalent to that which the crowd had given Duncan. Unfortunately for our round hero, however, the crowd had anticipated the nature of his announcement early on in his little speech, for it was really not much of a surprise, as it was in effect the same kind of announcement Duncan had made a few moments earlier, and Zulecken, his arts-community eminence aside, was no celebrity, lacking the electrifying presence that came so naturally to the poet. Clapping, in other words, was impatient and sparse, and from Duncan, who felt something nearly like contempt for Zulecken, the clapping was less than quiet, while from Clark, who was by now having difficulty hiding his exasperation at the hijacking of his project, there was no clapping whatsoever, as the great professor had folded his arms above his firm, besweatered belly, which appeared at that moment to protrude angrily from beneath his elbows.
Zulecken, however, was unperturbed by any of this, having recovered within himself the belief that his work was worthwhile in spite of - nay, it occurred to him as he stared at the indifferent crowd, precisely because of - their manifest lack of interest. If Canadians were not interested in his study of themselves and their nation, it was merely - no, it was precisely - a sign that, in fact, he had so much more work to do, to rouse these people from their national slumbers. He therefore allowed the sparse applause to die completely, and proudly endured what was for others an awkward moment of silence, but was for him a triumph, before he continued.
“Well, we have much work ahead of us, and it is time perhaps for us to proceed from a celebration of our work, to the work itself. Our journey” - here Zulecken again paused for a very deliberate sip of water, while off to the side at the small table, Clark winced at the use of the word “our”, and glared at Zulecken with a look that someone unacquainted with our hero’s natural benevolence might have mistaken for fuming anger - “our journey begins on the morrow,” Zulecken continued, relishing the opportunity for grand rhetorical flourish, “and there is much to prepare. And so it is - “
Although Zulecken clearly intended to continue into some kind of denouement, that internal alarm that seems to go off eventually in every crowd was sounding in the shuffling of coats, and flashing in the consulting of phones. Zulecken glanced back at Clark, who unfolded his arms to tap his watch, and then turned back to the unlistening crowd. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, and members of the Canadian Society, I see that it is time for us to bring our historic meeting to an end. This historic evening will be long remembered…”
Of course, Zulecken did not actually finish speaking there, but it was the last anyone heard of him in his capacity as moderator of the evening, for the audience was busily moving towards the great doors at the end of the Hall opposite the stage, passing under the familiar portraits, and discussing with excitement both the importance of Clark’s project and the state of the weather for the journey home.
But while the assembled members of the Society moved on, our heroes remained behind in the now rather gloomy Macdonald Hall, each preparing in his own way for the journey ahead, given its new character.
Clark, his plans sorely disrupted, stood beside the lectern with his arms folded, staring at the ground, grappling internally with a rush of ideas, as in his mind he was already changing the terms and details of his project in order to ensure he would continue to direct its significance.
Beside him stood Zulecken, who, unseen and unheard by his colleague, was talking in flushed excitement at Clark, or perhaps simply to himself, describing the high drama of the evening and the importance of his sudden involvement in the project.
Duncan, pleased with his intervention and the thought of an adventure in the spotlight, had a thoroughly more cheerful aspect, standing in the centre of the room, shaking hands with some admirers, and caught in a flash as a newspaper reporter took a picture of the poet’s distinguished countenance, which was composed with the confidence of an accomplished writer, who knew his every act was being written in the great book of Canadian history. His symbolic visage thus captured in a flash for posterity, Duncan turned magnanimously to his right to answer the questions of a pretty TV reporter and her patient, ponytailed cameraman.
And, finally, at the very back of the room, stood the despondent Gaston, waiting still under the gaze of those stern portraits, himself staring anxiously into the middle distance, as he contemplated the myriad complications he was bound to endure, and to resolve, as he assisted our three competing grandees in their adventure across the country, tilting at their respective windmills.
Tonight… Saying Goodbye: Well, he may have been one of the men behind the hit song “Staying Alive”, but tonight, Maurice Gibb is dead… One Flu Over: New research showing that a rare form of the bird flu can in some cases lead to a deadly psychological condition for babies, has a Canadian connection… Here’s Conny: The city of Toronto is overcome with excitement as the host of a nightly talk show comes from New York to record an episode in Canada… Welcome to the Canadian Nightly News, with Marnie Gordon…
Well Canada, we have a lot to cover tonight, with a mysterious injury to the Pope having rocked the Roman Catholic world, and with the announcement that celebrated Canadian David Funk has been selected to be Canada’s next astronaut.
But first, let’s turn to our lead story, the beginning of a new project said by well-placed political insiders to be “crucial for the future of Canadian unity.” Here’s Donald Campbell, our Canadian culture specialist, reporting from here in Toronto…
Thanks Marnie. I’m here in Toronto’s storied Macdonald Hall, where I’ve just attended an historic meeting of the storied Canadian Society for Heritage, Identity, and Tradition. I’m talking with Professor Gordon Donald Clark, the prominent Canadian Literature specialist from Toronto’s famous Albert College, who has just announced that he is taking on a revolutionary research project - to find our elusive Canadian identity. Beginning in the Maritimes and ending on the west coast, Professor Clark will abandon the ivory tower for coffee row, talking to real Canadians and gathering real stories of their lives, and their ideas about what it means to be truly Canadian.
Professor Clark, what motivated you to undertake this historic journey?
Uh, I’m uh, not Professor Clark, I’m the fam- uh, the publisher, Zulecken.
Oh, uh, my apologies, sir, I -
But, I’m uh, well, I’m also going on this journ-, this que-, this tri- uh this uh odyssey, joining Professor Clark in my uh, my uh capacity as a former Professor of Canadian Studies and an influential publi -
Canadian Studies - how is that different from Canadian Literature?
Well, you know, we don’t just read the fiction, we look uh, at uh -
And what will be the first adventure in your epic quest for our national spirit?
Well uh, we’re going to dip our feet in the Atlantic ocean at St. John’s, and then go take part in a local custom, called uh, screeching -
Don’t you think that some Canadians will find it offensive that you’re adopting the symbolism of Terry Fox’s inspiring 1980 Marathon of Hope?
Well, actually, we hoped uh, it was Professor Clark’s idea, he hoped everyone would find it uh, fitting that -
Well there you go, Marnie. It seems that Professor Clark here has found that his ambitious attempt to discuss Canadian unity is mired in controversy from the very start. Shades of Meech Lake? Back to you.
Thanks, Donald. It seems we may have a new national unity crisis on our hands?
We’ll have to wait and see, Marnie, but I imagine Canadians from coast to coast will be following the professor’s progress very closely.
Good night, Marnie.
“Tabernak!” Gaston muttered under his breath, as he quickly stowed his headphones in his pocket and, with a practiced movement, put away the iPhone he had been using to watch the previous evening’s nightly news broadcast.
“What was that, Gaston?” asked Clark, who was seated next to him in their taxi, as they made their way to Pearson Airport.
“I said, uh, ‘Quelle débâcle,’ sir. The Pope, you know…”
“Ah, yes, you’re from a Catholic background, of course. I assume he is receiving the best attention….”
Gaston nearly replied that he was about as Catholic as the Pope was a Nazi, but recovered himself in time to remember that it was very important for this project, and therefore his academic future, that he allow Clark to persist in his belief that Gaston was, in accordance with the stereotypes of les vielles Anglos, a true francophone. This, of course, meant that Gaston would on occasion have to demonstrate that he held some lingering sympathy for the Roman Catholic church, which he associated with vague memories of a stern grandmother, a boring ma tante méchante, the confused look of contempt and shame on his magouilleur father’s face when the local priest would occasionally come to his home for a visit, uninvited, meaning that little Gaston would have to wash up and behave himself in front of this unsettling stranger, and of course with the fact that Quebec had been settled before the revolution and had taken about 200 years to catch up to France on the subject of religion - almost.
In truth, however, Gaston’s mind was far from such thoughts at the moment, for he had more pressing matters to consider. While he knew that Clark had not seen the news broadcast the night before, since the professor and his assistant had both been attending a late dinner for various academic and cultural luminaries at that anglo absurdity known as the Queen Mother restaurant, Gaston was worried nevertheless that the news would indeed follow their story and present it in a manner that would make it appear ridiculous, in that curious and unique way that the Canadian news media seemed to be able to make everything and everyone appear ridiculous, amateurish and sophomoric, no matter how serious the issue or event at hand. And of course if Duncan had seen the segment, though Gaston doubted the poet watched the news regularly, he would certainly have been offended that he had been neither interviewed for, nor mentioned in, that particular segment. Gaston did know, however, that Zulecken knew about it, given the fact that he had himself been in it, and had undoubtedly felt humiliated by the fact that the reporter had mistaken him for Clark. But Zulecken’s humiliation, at least, brought with it the advantage that he was unlikely to bring up the interview with anyone else.
Media anxieties aside, Gaston had been further aggravated late at night by a flood of calls from Duncan, and emails from Zulecken, and last-minute demands from Clark, as the three men confirmed Gaston’s fear that the graduate student would be expected to be at their command for every minor desire and irritation they would encounter from the fishy coasts of the Maritimes to the weedy mountains of British Columbia. They were certainly successes in their respective fields, thought the young Quebecker, these experts in Canadian letters; but they were hopeless out in the world, which seemed somehow to cause them simultaneous surprise and dismay. What was that line, that a hero is respected by everyone, with the exception of his butler? And was that what he, Gaston, had become - a mere servant, a subordinate in a larger project, utterly beyond his control?
Clark, gazing out the window on his side of the back seat of the cab, was occupied with other matters. He was very excited by the journey that lay before him, sincerely hopeful that his work would enable him to write the definitive work on the nature of Canadian identity. But his plan, as complex and thoroughly considered as it was, had been badly disrupted by the shocking declarations of Duncan and Zulecken the previous evening. There were many apparently small but in fact quite important details that had to be worked out now, that would have been entirely unproblematic had he been alone on the journey. For example, he thought to himself, who would be the first in the trio to dip his foot in the Atlantic? Should it be the representative of Canadian Literature, Canadian publishing, or Canadian poetry? Who should go last? Should the order be reversed when they made it to the west coast? And wouldn’t that leave someone in the unremarkable second position at both ends and thus, symbolically, all across the country? More problematically, could the middle be construed as the most Canadian position, and would it therefore be Clark’s duty, as the leader, to come second? And what if the others had the same thought, and if they did, would they all end up fighting with each other to be in between the others?
Clark took a deep breath and shook his head, having managed somehow to confuse himself, and tried to direct his mind to simpler but still portentous problems. For example, when he was scheduled to have dinner with the Governor General, would Duncan and Zulecken be invited? Most importantly, who would be in charge of making such decisions, and would the others follow his orders if he gave any? For now, Clark felt that he was still the primary authority in charge of the project, but of course Duncan and Zulecken could just choose to ignore him, and that authority would in any case fade over time as Duncan and Zulecken began to feel like they had as important a role to play in the project as Clark himself did, in spite of the fact that the whole thing was Clark’s idea. Most importantly, this confusion would of course disrupt their interaction with their subjects, and would influence the picture of Canadian identity that would emerge from their research….
Some minutes later, their separate anxieties unresolved, both Clark and Gaston came to themselves when the car came to a stop outside the airport’s departure terminal, and the driver, instead of getting out of the car to help them with their bags, instead kept the doors locked, muttered something, and pointed through the windshield to an unexpected spectacle unfolding before them.
Directly in front of their cab, a cabby was involved in a heated altercation with a man who was clearly his fare. The trunk of the cab was open, and before it stood the cabby, pointing to the empty trunk and shouting, and in front of him stood a man who was alternately pointing at the luggage on the ground in front of him and back at the empty trunk. The natural impulse of passers-by to stop and gawk was in this case magnified for two reasons: first, the loud spat was happening at an airport, which was precisely the worst place to make a violent scene; and second, the rather amusing contrast between the tall, slim cabby, and the short man with the impossibly round stomach, and the red face under a bright white Tilley hat, with whom the cabby was arguing.
Clark and Gaston were also suitably shocked and amused, until they paid closer attention to the short man, and both drew in their breath in simultaneous surprise. Clutching his assistant’s arm, Clark said loudly “Gaston! It’s - ” at which point Gaston muttered bitterly, “En majesté, dodu Canadien…”
For the angry, pointing fare, our hero and his young charge had realized, was none other than Zulecken, whom they had never before seen in his travelling garb, which appeared to have been designed to give the distinct impression that the diminutive professor was about to go canoeing. Between his pristine Tilley hat on top, with its strap snugly tightened beneath his chin, lest a strong wind should start and blow the rugged thing away (and presumably onto the lake, where it would, by design, float rather than sink), and the meshed, waterproof, ankle-high hiking shoes (marred by nary an offending scratch) on his feet, the intrepid Zulecken wore a white t-shirt, emblazoned with the cartooned logo of a resort lodge, which no one could see, because over the t-shirt he was wearing a forest-green fleece vest (to give a hint of camouflage in case that became necessary), thoughtfully designed to keep you warm and cool on the lake (and to prevent your torso from getting wet when paddling your canoe), and bright, off-white cargo pants (with their extra pockets, useful for all kinds of storage), from the waist of which he sported a mini-carabiner to secure his keys, presumably in case he should fall out of the canoe (and to invoke the spirit of mountain climbing), and, completing the ensemble, barely visible just below the point where the ties at the bottom of his pants had been tied (to keep the black flies out, of course), thick grey wool socks.
What does the man believe, Gaston thought to himself, is going to happen on the airplane, that he should find it necessary to dress himself like some douchy Ottawa wasp who has managed to escape from his horrid suburban boredom for a weekend to go and be boring somewhere else, in what the anglos called, rather horribly, “cottage country“, which had always sounded to the young Quebecker like English slang for a yeast infection?
But Clark, who was naturally predisposed to be disturbed and embarrassed by any kind of conflict, was more disturbed by Zulecken’s behaviour, than he was with his hardy sartorial proclivities. Determined to put at end to the altercation at once, Clark jerked on the handle of the cab door, but found it was still locked. The cabby heard this and, without turning around, remarked in an even voice: “I don’t think it would be a very good idea to get out right now - that short fat guy with the funny hat looks pretty pissed off, and the cabby he’s shouting at, man, I know that guy, he studies Brazilian jiu jitsu and really loves all that MMA shit. One time I heard - ”
Clark, indignant at being locked into the back seat like a child, and now a little frightened for Zulecken, who surely had never studied any jiu jitsu in his life, replied in a high-pitched voice that he wanted out immediately, and jiggled and jerked the handle until finally the cabby deigned to release the lock.
As Clark levered himself out onto the curb, followed closely by the cool Gaston, he heard the tall cabby shouting, in an elegant Indian accent:
“How many times must I assure you, sir, that you did not have a garment bag with you, before you will concede that I am telling the truth?”
Zulecken once again raised his hand to point at the trunk and opened his mouth to shout back, when Clark interrupted him.
“What’s going on here, Zulecken?”
Zulecken, his hand still raised, turned to Clark, and the colour in his face changed from that shade of red commonly associated with anger, to that other shade of red, most commonly associated with embarrassment.
“Professor Clark! I - this man - I have been trying to explain to him that I could not have forgotten my garment bag. It has my suit in it! My suit - ”
The cabby interrupted, now addressing Clark, in a calmer tone: “Your short friend here says he gave me a garment bag along with the other luggage when I picked him up at his home. But he did no such thing. Then we get here, and of course when I open the trunk, there is no garment bag inside, because there was never one in there in the first place!” This last was directed with a gaze of proud defiance down at Zulecken.
Clark, having had some experience with Zulecken’s propensity for directing anger at others when he was covering for his own mistakes, replied to the cabby:
“Well, sir, of course we believe you.”
It was a response which, had it been calculated deliberately to offend Zulecken, could not have been better formulated. Stunned, Zulecken’s pointing hand, which had been held aloft this whole time, began to falter, as the shade of embarrassment on his thoroughly confused face began to mix dangerously with the returning shade of that other ruddy colour.
“Clark! How can you - but it’s impossible - my suit!”
“But my dear Zulecken!” Clark said, calmly placing a hand on his colleague’s shoulder, “I merely meant that unless your garment bag has become invisible, you must come up with some explanation for where this man has hidden it. If you did bring it out to the cab, where could he possibly have put it, except in the trunk, where it clearly is not?”
Zulecken considered this, and was about to reply that of course the cabby could have forgotten it on the street instead of putting it away in the trunk, when he realized that of course he would never have put his tailored, Savile Row suit - a great prize he had saved up for for some time, and had bought a few years earlier during a trip to London, and which he not only cherished in itself, but which he relied upon to produce what he considered a grand effect on those present when he wore it - on the ground, or permitted anyone else to do so. This reminded him in turn that as he was leaving his house he had hung the garment bag on a coat hook by the door, so he could bend down to tie his shoes… and of course, the garment bag must still be hanging there, quiet and alone in his silent house, guarding the noble suit snugly within its red, silk-lined interior.
At once, although Zulecken was definitely embarrassed both by his mistake and his mistaken behaviour, the feeling that conquered his mind for the moment, now that he was certain his precious suit was safe, was relief. Raising his eyes to meet first those of Clark and then those of the cabby, he smiled gently, and decided that, since there was no way out of this situation which would not involve some sort of capitulation, a gentlemanly apologetic incoherence was called for. “Yes - well - I didn’t mean to cause any - I was excited and I suppose I - well, I must have left the - the - behind.”
The cabby crossed his arms and nodded. “That is what I have been trying to tell you all this time.”
Clark, seeing that the situation had been resolved, quickly added Zulecken’s luggage to his own cart, which had been brought over by the resourceful Gaston, and, motioning Zulecken to take the cart and move on, said to the cabby: “I’m sorry, sir, for my excitable friend here. We are at the beginning of an historic journey across Canada, to find out from real Canadians what they think about Canadian…”
“I’m more interested,” the cabby cut in with a stern voice, “in which real Canadian is going to pay me real Canadian dollars for the real Canadian time your execrable friend wasted shouting at me.”
“Uh, I said, “excitable“, not -“
“I know what you said. My time is money and this man wasted it. Do you want me to lodge a complaint to the airport administration?”
As it happened, the cabby chose exactly the right way to pose his gentle exercise in legitimate extortion, for nothing could strike more fear into the hearts of the delicate professors than the possibility that someone might “lodge a complaint” - and to an administration, no less! Clark, who had to think quickly, and did not want to be associated personally with the dirty business, and who had been abandoned by Zulecken, who had in the meantime surreptitiously fled with the luggage cart, suddenly thought of Gaston, who had been dealing with their own cabby and had just walked up to Clark.
As he spoke, Clark endeavoured to catch his assistant’s eye. “Well, sir,” he said to the cabby in a manner that almost achieved its goal of emulating magnanimity, “yes, you have a point, but I’m not very good at this sort of thing, and I certainly, well, uh, don’t want - a complaint, you say! Well, perhaps…”
Throughout this stammered speech, Clark had managed to catch Gaston’s eye, and of course the young Quebecker knew what the professor wanted. Gaston, however, was both amused by Clark’s discomfort and at the same time a little annoyed that he, Gaston, perhaps because he was not English, would be expected to know how to handle such things. So the young man let Clark suffer a moment, before interrupting him and speaking to the cabby.
“Look, what my friend ‘ere is trying to say,” said Gaston respectfully but forcefully, and accentuating his accent with a hint of the Beauce, “is that ‘e’s sorry, but ‘e need to get in der to catch ‘ees flight and ‘e don’ ‘ave time to ‘elp you out ‘imself. Professor Clark” - here Gaston turned to the professor - “you just go inside and get things sorted out for yourself, and I’ll sort things out here with this gentleman.”
Clark, seeing that the cabby appeared satisfied, nodded quickly and turned to leave, tripping nervously along the path Zulecken had taken inside.
“Sorry ‘bout dat,” Gaston said to the cabby, as they both stood and watched Clark move off quickly and awkwardly through the dispersing crowd and into the airport. “Ten buck ok?”
“Ok, ok,” the cabby said, taking the money from Gaston, “but tell me, what does your fat little friend need a suit for anyway, if he is going camping?”
Inside the airport, Clark found Zulecken standing under large screens showing airlines and sections and maps, and the two professors collaborated on solving the puzzle of where to go to check in, using the opportunity to signal indirectly to each other that they would pass over the incident with the cabby in silence.
When they finally found the Air Canadia section, they made their way through the crowd to what they hoped was the appropriate cordoned customer lane, settling in for what they hoped would be a brief wait in line. They noticed as they approached the barrier that there was a full complement of three Air Canadia clerks working behind their desks, checking people in; but then, to their joint chagrin, one, and then another, of the clerks left their desks, and the line began to grow quickly. Clark checked his watch and saw that even with this delay they should still have enough time to make their flight, and, wondering what to do with the time, decided to have a little talk with Zulecken about the aforementioned delicate matters that had preoccupied him since the previous evening.
“Well, Rod, it was kind of Gaston to arrange your travel details on such short notice, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it certainly was, he is a - a very resourceful young man,” replied Zulecken, who met Clark’s eyes only briefly, and grabbed at some little cards with elastic strings on a stand next to him, in order to fill them out and attach them to his luggage. Trying desperately to avoid the conversation, Zulecken began studying the cards and strings in deep concentration, holding a wire-bound pen from the stand aloft.
Zulecken was in reality quite nervous, for he had a sense that Clark was going to chastise him for hijacking his project. And that hijacking, in spite of the grand rhetoric with which Zulecken had described it to the crowd, had of course been an impulsive decision, based more on the feeling of shame and perhaps even envy that had overtaken the publisher on the stage, rather than on any real desire to go on a lengthy and expensive journey across Canada. The truth, in fact, was that the little publisher was rather frightened at the prospect of the journey, and half of him was secretly hoping that Clark was about to find a polite way to say that he was not, in fact, welcome, and should put down his pen, pick up his bags, and go back home to his books, and his lonely suit.
“Yes, he is very resourceful, a sort of latter-day courer de bois, you might say, one whom we can trust to go off and carry out whatever task has been set to him, and to do so with good humour.”
“Mm-hmm,” replied Zulecken, beginning to wonder where this was all going, since Clark had very deliberately said “our” journey without any irony or bitterness. He focused even more intently on writing his name and address on the little cards.
“Resourceful as he is, however,” continued Clark, “we should, I think, make it clear to Gaston that while we will be relying on him to manage the, as it were, mechanical details of our journey, it is crucial that the more important details, the very crucial, the organic details, those of symbolic and - and academic professional import - are left in the hands of those with more experience, and authority, in matters relating to the overall purpose for our project.”
“Certainly, certainly,” replied Zulecken, still unsure where Clark was leading him, though it was clearly along what was rather obviously a Socratic path, designed from the start to trap the interlocutor into a larger commitment than his seemingly minor agreements along the way would suggest. Still trying to avoid Clark’s gaze, Zulecken picked up another luggage card and inspected it closely before he began to fill it out, though it was clearly identical to the four cards he had already filled out for his three pieces of luggage.
“For example, now that there are three of us - a poet, a publisher and a professor - directing this symbolic journey, there will be many decisions of an historic nature, and great cultural sensitivity will be required.”
“Mmm-hmm,” replied Zulecken, still filling out the fifth card, but starting to see, to his relief, where Clark was heading.
“And so I think we should make it clear to everyone - to Gaston, I mean - that it should be to my authority, as his supervisor in this project, to which we - I mean he, rather - should defer in the case of these more significant and complex matters.”
Ah, so that’s it, Zulecken thought with some relief, as he attached yet another card to an already becarded strap on his carry-on bag. Clark merely wanted to establish his power over the direction of the project, rather than to castigate Zulecken, and by extension Duncan, for hijacking his plans. This changed everything: Clark was accepting him on the journey, and on terms that suited Zulecken perfectly. Indeed, this was precisely what the professor had wanted to hear, without knowing it. It meant he could tag along in his accustomed manner, as an observer of the decisions made by others, as an interpreter of their choices and their actions, without having to bear any responsibility for what was actually carried out in their name, or any consequences left in their wake. With this thought, Zulecken felt his gnawing anxiety lift, replaced with a sense of well-being and confidence that naturally manifested itself in him as something falling just short of genuine magnanimity.
A new man, Zulecken turned away from the stand with the travel cards, straightened himself and looked up into Clark’s eyes, communicating an unspoken acknowledgment that he knew what Clark was really saying, and that he was fully prepared to cede authority for this project.
“Well, yes,” said Zulecken somewhat sternly, “as capable as Gaston is, he is still a young man, inexperienced in the complexities of Canadian discourse, and authority for the most important decisions should clearly fall to you, as the leading figure in the project. And the one who has been granted the council funding, after all.” At this, Professor Clark, himself relieved, returned his colleague’s accommodating look with humble, and slightly apologetic, grace.
Their conflict thus resolved, both Clark and Zulecken noticed that the line in front of them had slowly moved forward, and, followed by the angry eyes of those waiting impatiently behind them, the pair quickly moved to the front of the tightly switchbacked, green-cordoned corridor.
When they reached the head of the line, for some reason they found themselves spontaneously adopting the self-conscious stance of soldiers being observed by a commanding officer whose favour they were required to curry, and after a short time they were motioned over by the lone airline clerk at the check-in counter. As our heroes approached politely, trying their best to exude a sense of their own deliberate resourcefulness, the stern clerk looked down at her screen and began tapping away at her keyboard, her eyes intently focused on the screen before her.
After a brief pause and an even more focused study of the screen, the clerk looked up at Zulecken and Clark, who were waiting with a sort of patient anxiety at a polite distance from the counter, and then abruptly lowered her eyes and went back to typing.
TAPPITY-TAPPITY TAP-TAP TAPPITY-TAP. TAP. TAP. TAP-TAP-TAP-TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAP TAP. TAP. TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAPPITY-TAPPITY.
As she paused to stare even more intently at the screen, Clark slowly stepped up to the counter, efficiently holding his printed itinerary in his had, and said politely: “We’re going - ”
TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAPPITY. TAP. TAP-TAP. TAPPITY-TAP TAP-TAP. TAP.
“As I was saying, we’re - ”
Clark, somewhat confused, turned to look at the equally confused Zulecken, when the clerk, without looking up, said: “Destination.”
Assuming this was a question, Clark eagerly turned back to the clerk and replied: “Yes, my colleague here, and I, we’re on the seven-thirty flight to St. John’s, and - ”
TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP. TAPPITY-TAP. TAP TAP. TAPPITY TAPPITY. TAP-TAP TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAP. TAP TAP TAP-TAPPITY.
“I have my itinerary here, which my assistant printed - ”
TAPPITY-TAP-TAP TAPPITY TAP-TAP-TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAP TAP TAPPITY TAP… TAP… TAP-TAP… TAPPITY. TAP. TAPPITY-TAP. TAP.
“Well, yes, uh, I’m Professor Gordon Donald Clark, and this is my colleague, Professor Rod Zulecken…”
TAPPITY. TAP TAP TAP-TAP TAP-TAPPITY-TAPPITY TAP-TAP-TAP. TAP TAP TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAPPITY TAP… TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAPPITY-TAP-TAPPITY. TAPPITY TAPPITY TAPPITY. TAP TAP TAP. TAPPITY. TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP. TAP TAP TAPPITY TAP TAP TAP. TAP-TAP-TAPPITY. TAP TAP.
“Do you have your itineraries?”
“Yes, they’re right - “
TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP TAPITTY TAP TAP TAPPITY TAP. TAP TAP. TAP TAP TAP. TAPPITY TAP-TAP TAP TAPPITY TAPPITY TAPPITY TAPPITY TAPPITY TAPPITY TAPPTY TAPPITY TAPPITY TAP TAP TAP-TAP-TAP.
“Please hand them over to me,” the clerk said sternly, holding out her hand while still staring at the screen, as though Clark were presenting an obstacle to her progress.
Resourcefully, Clark had anticipated this demand, and handed over both pieces of paper at once, while he and Zulecken stared, mesmerized, as the clerk’s hands again flew over the keyboard, following their own hypnotic logic - TAP-TAP-TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP TAPPITY TAPPITY TAP TAP TAPPITY TAP TAP TAP-TAP TAPPITY TAPPITY TAPPITY TAP - before she quickly passed the bar codes on the itineraries under a scanner.
She stared at the screen for a moment, and Zulecken worked up the courage to say: “I assume everything is in order, we - ”
TAPPITY-TAP. TAP TAP TAP. TAPPITY-TAPPITY TAP TAP TAP TAP-TAP TAPPITY-TAPPITY TAP TAP TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP. TAP. TAP. TAPPITY. TAPPITY-TAPPITY TAP TAP TAP TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP. TAPPITY.
Clark and Zulecken stared hopefully at the clerk’s hands as she moved one of them from the keyboard over to the mouse, searched the screen, then clicked, and stared at the screen. Their faces fell, however, when the clerk suddenly dropped her hands to the keyboard once again, without looking up.
TAPPITY. TAP-TAP-TAP TAPPITY. TAP TAPPITY-TAPPITY. TAP-TAP-TAP. TAPPITY. TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP TAPPITY. TAP. TAP. TAP. TAP. TAP. TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP. TAPPITY-TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP. TAPPITY-TAP. TAPPITY… TAP.
Perhaps it would be best for the moment to leave Clark and Zulecken, captivated as they were by the mysterious typing of the clerk, and turn our attention back to the redoubtable Gaston, who, when he had finished paying off the cabby and shared a cigarette with him, had entered the airport and checked in at the Air Canadia self-check-in terminal, and then moved off to the side to look for Clark and Zulecken. There he found our poet, Duncan, dressed with a view to cultural authority, boarding pass in hand, staring at the long lineup, where Clark was talking to Zulecken, just as the latter was beginning to fill in his fifth luggage card.
“Why are they standing in line?” asked Duncan sternly.
“I’m not sure, sir,” replied Gaston. “Perhaps they don’t fly much.”
“One does not have to be a frequent flier to remark the signs for self-check-in terminals.”
“As it happens, young - Gaston is it?”
“Well - as it happens, young man, I am in fact grateful that those two fools have given us a chance to have a little talk.”
Gaston, who had been looking at Clark and Zulecken as they now waited patiently to be motioned over by the clerk, looked up at Duncan, trying to control his expression. What was Duncan up to? Was he going to try to compromise Gaston’s ostensible loyalty to Clark, and trap the graduate student by coaxing from him an insulting comment about his commanding professor? Or had Duncan perhaps heard at last about Gaston’s brief, and presumably resented, romantic encounter with his granddaughter, Lucy? And what would be the consequences for his career if he managed to offend Duncan in any way? The graduate student clearly needed to find a strategy to handle the old poet, and soon, for these situations and uncertainties were otherwise bound to multiply in frequency and importance throughout their expedition.
Ignoring Gaston’s silence, Duncan continued imperiously. “You see, Gaston, I am a frequent traveller, but I have always chosen to travel in the classically Canadian fashion - by train, on that great… how shall I put it… following the tracks of that great benevolent mechanical animal that first united our country.”
“That is a very commendable - ”
“Commendable is not the word for it. Symbolic - that is the more appropriate word. For I not only write my poetry in accordance with the symbolism of the construction of this nation, I live my life in accordance with that symbolism. And so, I have always travelled by train. But the suddenness of my decision to take part in this journey has prevented me from doing so in this case - and so I have had to sacrifice my tradition, the tradition, in order to accommodate the urgent contingencies of this, this very important project, from which, I must say, I was somewhat offended that I was to be excluded.”
“A meaningful sacrifice, sir.”
“Yes, exactly, young man, a meaningful sacrifice. But as happens so often when one has committed oneself to the warp and woof… to the ups, yes, to the ups and downs, as it were, of the world - I find myself confronted by an uncomfortable dilemma, and I find that I require your assistance.”
“Assistance, sir?” Gaston replied curiously, surprised that Duncan’s imperious speech and manner had led to this rather aggressive request for a favour. “Whatever it is - ”
“It is a form of assistance that requires two acts on your part, both of them, I assure you, quite noble and fitting, given your position as a trusted assistant.”
“The first act is to keep a secret, and the second is to help me overcome the difficulty that you must keep secret. Can I trust you, Gaston?” At this, Duncan, who had been averting his gaze, turned to face Gaston directly, and fixed him with a meaningful look.
Although Gaston was worried about what he was being drawn into, he was nonetheless relieved that it did not appear to be related to any betrayal of Clark, or Duncan’s granddaughter. “Certainly, sir.”
“Well, you see, young man, although my decision to travel by train has always been motivated by the purest motives of poetic significance, of the highest poetic significance, one might say, it remains the case that I have - that I have - you can be trusted, can you not, Gaston?”
“Well then - it has always been the case, purely by accident, that it is fortunate that it has been my destiny to travel exclusively by train, for since my earliest youth, I have had a - not a fear, but - well, you understand that my world is one of - of nature, and history, and engagement with the land, connection to the earth, you see…. And so I can,” the poet continued heedlessly, “even at my age, hike a difficult mountain trail, swim across a lake shortly after it has lost its wintry cap of ice, I can canoe up and down the, uh, the downy rapids, and indeed carry a canoe myself in the most demanding uphill portage, battling all the way with mud and black flies, and make my way intuitively through the harshest of prairie blizzards and the most blinding of coastal rains, I can even command a fishing vessel in a storm, experienced as I am with the sea - you understand this, do you not?”
“Yes, certainly, I am familiar - “
“And this has brought with it a fitting, and if I may say, indeed necessary, association of my person, my national persona - on a symbolic level, no less - with great courage. You understand that it is important - not just for me, for in and for myself, I am of no matter - but it is important, nay, if I may, crucial, for the meaning of this country, for its culture, for its very unity - that this persona be sustained in the public mind, and for posterity?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Gaston, who thought he may have seen through Duncan’s vanity to the issue that the poet was finding it so hard to express.
“Yes, good. Well then, to the point - it just so happens that my, my traditional sensibilities are not suited to this modern contrivance - the airplane.”
So the great man is indeed afraid of flying, thought Gaston, and afraid also to admit it. “I understand, sir,” he replied respectfully, “to be flying thousands of feet in the air in a large metal tube that is kept aloft by what is in fact a sustained explosion, for hours on end, it is an unnatural thing.”
This was a description of flight that Duncan had clearly never heard before, and his deliberate pride drained from his face. “A sustained explosion… yes… unnatural,” the poet muttered to himself, turning to look off into the middle distance, truly afraid.
It was the sight of a trembling lip in the practiced, noble visage of a man who had surpassed Gaston’s own father’s age by two decades, that finally convinced the young man that perhaps he had been too cruel to the sensitive poet, who was clearly undergoing a serious internal trial. And so it was for the sake of pity that the noble Gaston chose to forgive Duncan his imperiousness. Indeed, Gaston began to feel real guilt for having abused the poet’s fear, and even worse, his trust, for the sake of a moment’s cruel and private fun.
“You would like me to get you something to help you get through the flight, sir?”
“Yes!” said Duncan, turning to Gaston and grasping one of his shoulders so tightly that his hand turned a lighter shade of white.
Gaston winced. “Well,” he said, setting his creative and persuasive mind to work in spite of the pain in his shoulder, “well, sir, I wonder - well - I do have something, but it may be beyond your strength to bear, given your age….”
“Ha!” said Duncan, his fear somewhat distracted by this poke at his pride, precisely as Gaston had intended. He let go of the young man’s shoulder and balled his hands into fists before him, in a gesture of offensive strength. “I am as strong as a moose, young man, fit as a lusty caribou, I assure you! What is it you have?”
“Well, sir,” replied Gaston, looking carefully to his right and left, as though someone might be listening, “you see, I do have something, but it’s not the kind of thing that can be discussed openly - ” here Gaston gripped Duncan’s own shoulder with one hand, and fixed him with a conspiratorial stare - “if you take my meaning, sir.”
Duncan’s eyes retreated for a moment in some confusion at Gaston’s sudden familiarity; he was not accustomed to being handled in this way. To compound his confusion, it happened that Duncan did not at all take Gaston’s meaning - until the light, as it were, began to dawn, and he brought his eyes back into focus to meet Gaston’s gaze.
Drugs, in fact, were almost a complete mystery to Duncan. But as a poet he had always known it was expected that he should know something of such things, and he had developed over the years various attitudes and expressions which sufficed indirectly to convince his usually even straighter Canadian interlocutors that he was indeed learned in the lore of illicit substances.
“Yes, young man,” he replied in a knowing tone, as he too looked carefully to his right and then to his left, “I do indeed take your meaning.”
“So what I tell you, will stay between us?”
Duncan turned his experienced countenance back upon Gaston, and offered a knowing nod.
Gaston stepped closer to Duncan and, looking away while he spoke, as though he were surveying the crowd, explained:
“You know, sir, how difficult and fast-paced life is for young academics these days, what great pressure there is on us.”
“Yes, it is very different than it was in my day, when the life of a scholar - “
“And have you noticed that some of us appear to be able to handle incredible amounts of work?”
“Yes, although I have also noticed that along with this increase in so-called productivity, the quality of thinking - ”
This old man’s imperiousness really is remarkable, thought Gaston. Even when he asks me for help, he cannot help himself moving on to his habitual, narrow-minded insults. Well, he thought - there are favours, and then there are favours.
“Perhaps then you will not be surprised to hear that we use means beyond hard work and determination, to, how you say in English, perform our enhancements?”
“Ah - yes,” replied Duncan, getting Gaston’s drift and focusing his attention again on the matter at hand. This was truly a revelation to him, something he had never encountered and certainly never considered before, even given the powers of his vast imagination. He knew students typically took drugs for recreation - but to improve their academic performance!
“In particular, this can mean that from time to time we need to manage our sleep very strictly. For me in particular, this is difficult, because I have always been a night person, and especially with this journey coming, and Clark being a morning person, I became very worried that I would be unable to sleep when I must. So, I ‘ave a friend ‘oo is in the medical school, and I go to ‘im wit’ my problem, an’ it turn out - you must keep this secret, you understand?”
Duncan nodded, slightly worried about where this was going, and that he may have exposed his secret to the wrong kind of person.
“Well, my friend is training to be a psychiatrist - an’ ‘e give me some very top-of-de-line, very expensif, experimental pill, dat put you to sleep immediatement, two hour for each pill you take. Is that not remarkable?”
“Yes, it is,” replied Duncan, genuinely amazed.
“So I can give you two of deez pills, and you will sleep for de ‘ole flight, and your problem, she ees solved! It is very fortunate that you came to me with your problem.”
Duncan, who was mechanically nodding his head slowly, was in fact beginning to feel that he did not entirely agree. What if there were something illegal about this whole thing? What if he were caught in a - a drugs scandal? It was something Canadians simply did not do - and if they did, it was as though they had become suspiciously American, or something of that sort. It certainly would complicate any future grant applications he might make, or indeed endorse - the government could not be seen giving money to people who might spend it in such inappropriate ways! And what of the reaction of his colleagues? If he could no longer recommend young poets because of his tarnished reputation - think of the influence over the future of Canadian culture that he would lose!
At this troubling juncture, Duncan noticed that Gaston had stopped speaking altogether and was looking at him intently, as though expecting some kind of response. What do I do? thought Duncan, feeling genuine fear - and it was this feeling that propelled him to his decision.
No, he thought, he had too many years behind him to surrender to fear! What had the purpose of his lifetime of poetic endeavour indeed been, what had been the meaning of all of those symbolic engagements with the challenges of the land, if they had not taught him - courage? And he was, after all, a poet - should he not be willing to take such chances as this? And if he gave in here - would people attribute it to his age, and would he thus enter that terrible living hell that the young visit upon the old, second-guessing them and treating them like children who require protection from themselves? No!
“Yes,” said the poet, stiffening his stance and holding up his chin. “It is indeed fortunate. I’ll take them now.” At this, with a flourish, the poet stuck out his right hand, palm up.
Gaston instinctively leaned in, quickly grasping the startled poet’s hand and shaking it, and catching his eye with a significant look. “Well, sir, there are two matters we should settle before I give you any of my pills,” he replied, placing a slight but deliberate emphasis on the word “my” and looking about conspiratorially.
“Well?” expostulated Duncan, impatient to take action now that he had made his decision, and removing his hand from the student’s grasp.
“Well - you should not take the pills until you are in fact on the plane and seated, as they take effect immediately; but in any case, don’t you think it would be rather risky for us to make the exchange here, and for you to take the pills through security yourself?”
Duncan went slightly pale and was at a loss to reply.
“Of course I’m sure you’ve had more than your fair share of experience with this sort of thing - considering the oft-acknowledged fact that being resourceful and cunning with the authorities is necessary for the survival all social radicals, and above all, poets, who are by nature somewhat seditious.”
Duncan saw the opening and took it. “Yes, young man, if you knew half the stories” - here the poet gazed into the high distance and shook his head slowly, as though recalling dark exploits hidden in his past - “and of course my experience, given my commitment to traditional Canadian modes of transport, has not allowed me any knowledge of the innovations of airport security.”
Gaston was slightly impressed by Duncan’s only slightly contradictory evasiveness. He certainly knows how to shield his pride from the truth, the young Frenchman thought to himself, before replying: “And there is, of course, the rather vulgar matter of - payment.”
This too had not occurred to Duncan, and again he was at a loss to reply. His proud expression became rigid. Being given some pills as a favour by this young Quebecker was one thing, but to actually pay him brought the matter home in a different, and rather sordid way. Wouldn’t it make it really illegal if he actually paid for the pills, he thought nervously?
Gaston saw Duncan’s hesitation and again offered him a way out. “Ah, I see you are an experienced negotiator - waiting for me to set the price, eh?”
“Yes, of course,” said Duncan, retreating to his pride in spite of his worry, and fixing Gaston with a hard look.
“The pills are really very effective, and as they are exp - ”
“No, I do not agree with your opinion of the poetry of F.A. Horowitz, young man,” Duncan said loudly, quickly shifting his eyes over Gaston’s shoulder, having seen an excuse to change the subject suddenly. “There is nothing of any significance beneath the dull exterior of his work.”
Gaston, somewhat startled at this transition, turned to look over his shoulder, and saw Clark and Zulecken approaching, which of course explained Duncan’s abrupt evasion. Dragging their rolling carry-on bags behind them with their right hands, the pair were each of them triumphantly holding out, in their left hands, their boarding passes, which they had finally procured after surviving the encounter with the endlessly typing clerk.
“Ah, you are discussing Horowitz, Duncan?” said Clark. He gladly dove head-first into a literary discussion quite naturally, his actual situation forgotten, entirely and immediately at home in his discursive element. “I contend that it is a mistake to see his work as merely dull. The dullness is indeed part of the point.”
“And what point is that?” asked Duncan in a superior tone.
“A very important, and a very Canadian point - which is simply that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the boredom of our reality by the fantasy of excitement. Real life takes place in the space in between adventure, and it is a very American innovation - and a typically American trap - to place a positive value on the flash and the bang, rather than the dull and the - the whimper.”
“Well, that is a very academic way of putting things, and reflects an academic’s understanding,” Duncan replied aggressively. “From the perspective of a poet…”
Gaston took the opportunity presented by the inevitable argument to extricate himself from the small group and make an essential trip to a small magazine shop nearby. Indeed, he was relieved to have a reason to leave the men to themselves, for the argument, he felt, would inevitably be at best tiresome, and mostly irritating, given the mean nature of its subject - the celebrated poet F.A. Horowitz.
Fêted by most of the prize-givers and poem-publishers in Canada - and thus a rival to Duncan, who routinely courted what passed for controversy in the timid national poetry community - Horowitz’s work focused almost without exception on subjects that were designed to appeal, and could perhaps only appeal, so Gaston suspected, to professors who had entered the latter stages of middle age, and who had already put their second mismanaged marriage behind them, along with a sad, fearful youth lost in the race for the patrician permanence of tenure. Filled with the kind of imagery that was supposed to demonstrate, in the eviscerated body of Canadian letters, some kind of wild familiarity with things sensual - as though every human being in existence were not rather good proof that people are generally quite familiar with the body - Horowitz, like many of his contemporaries, merely managed to embarrass himself and his readers with his clunky, naive imagery.
Particularly annoying were lines where the poet kept hammering away in a sham attempt to force the quite willing reader to be shocked by things not in fact shocking, such as the classic opening line to his award-winning poem “The Anus’s Openness”:
Fart, burp, and barf, pee, dirt and semen falling in latrines.
Nice try, mon ami, the Frenchman winced as he recalled the awkward line. Is this the best a Canadian poet can do when he is trying to invoke the spirit of the great Rabelais? Nerds should not be allowed to write poetry, he thought absently. And if farts and burps do indeed fall there, Horowitz’s faculty toilet at the University of Toronto must have a very special gravity indeed.
Shaking that banal failure at poetic expression from his mind, Gaston approached the counter and bought a pack of nondescript mints. He hoped they weren’t a brand Duncan was familiar with. However, he supposed, the possibility that Duncan might recognize the taste of the mints was minor in comparison to the very likely possibility that the ruse would fail entirely.
In any case, he knew his trick would have to work, or else things would turn out very badly. If Duncan stayed awake on the flight, there was no telling what the crazy old man would do, trapped somewhere between his pride and his fear at 30,000 feet. And if it emerged that Gaston had attempted this ruse, as surely it would if he failed, he knew he would be sent on the first flight back to Montreal and to academic penury, perhaps forced, in the end, to live the academic nightmare, taking a job as a sessional lecturer, wasting time forever in bitter professional limbo, with the reputation of a failure, which would only be magnified by the promising achievements of his youth.
As Gaston turned back to where he had left his superior charges, his eyes widened and he quickened his pace. A small crowd had gathered where they were standing, and there appeared to be some sort of commotion. Pressing through the wall of spectators, Gaston finally saw what had caused them to gather.
Clark and Duncan were leaning in aggressively towards each other and speaking in loud and angry tones, and appeared close to coming to blows, with only Zulecken between them, his Tilley hat hanging off its cord to one side of his neck, as he endeavoured to ensure the men remained apart.
“Take it back!” Clark was saying, a steady finger pointing at Duncan’s flushed visage.
“It is a point of principle, not a matter for debate!” replied Duncan, pointing his own steady finger up at the sky - whether at heaven, or at the realm of the Platonic forms from which his apparently unwavering principle emanated, Gaston could not tell for certain.
“Please, gentlemen,” pleaded Zulecken, whose twisting, as the men slowly circled each other, had brought his hat around, below his face.
“But a matter of taste cannot be a matter of principle! Et de gustabis, you know!”
“Bah, like all English professors, you have not read enough philosophy, and what you have read, you have failed to understand. According to Kant…”
As though things were not already bad enough, with the puzzled crowd gaping at the two intellectual eminences and recording with their phones this eloquent impasse in an argument on the nature of aesthetics, Gaston saw some very serious-looking security officers, hands in the general vicinity of their weapons, coming through the crowd.
“Clark! Duncan! Silence, les policiers,” he hissed loudly, pointing past them to the officers.
As soon as they heard his voice, Clark and Duncan turned to look at their assistant haughtily, but at the mention of the police, they followed the direction of his finger and turned their heads the other way, just as one of the officers stepped forward from the others and confronted the group.
“What’s going on here?” the lead officer said, her feet firmly planted, and an unblinking look of well-trained situational awareness, strength and superiority on her face - a face which, in spite of its deliberate officiousness, had some remarkably attractive features, and not just for a cop, Gaston thought to himself.
Clark and Duncan immediately began to look somewhat sheepish, softening their aggressive stances and lowering their fingers.
“What? Who’s that?” asked Zulecken, who could not see anything, as his hat was now fully covering his face, but who was still holding out his arms, nobly attempting to keep the now separated antagonists at bay in spite of his optical disadvantage.
“Put your hands down, sir,” the officer said sternly, clearly working hard to suppress a smirk.
“What! Whose hands!” Zulecken said, spinning around slowly, arms extended, now as much for balance as anything else.
“Are you talking to me?”
Seeing that Clark and Duncan were unwilling or unable to help, Gaston stepped slowly into the center of the ring of spectators, which had been growing in size and anxiety since the appearance of the officers, and said in an even voice, while looking into the eyes of the lead officer reassuringly: “Professor Zulecken, please remove your hat.”
Zulecken, his arms now spread out in front of him as though he were groping in a dark room, turned towards the Quebecker’s voice. “What? Gaston?” he said loudly, and finally brought up his hands to his hat, which, with an instinctive motion, he placed back on his head.
What Zulecken saw surprised him, and he immediately went still, his hands dropping to his sides. Behind the calm and dapper Gaston was a large crowd, and as Zulecken turned around to find Duncan and Clark, he saw that the crowd was large enough to have fully encircled them. Duncan and Clark were standing silently with their heads bowed, and looking sheepishly at what appeared to be a group of police officers, who did not look at all pleased, much to Zulecken’s bewildered alarm.
“Thank you, sir,” said the officer, who motioned to her fellows to relax after Zulecken lowered his arms. “What’s this all about, then?”
Neither Clark, who now appeared to be engaged in a thorough study of his shoelaces, nor Duncan, who appeared to be involved in a similarly detailed study of the officer’s knees, nor Zulecken, who was looking directly at the officer but was apparently stunned into unblinking silence, made any move to respond. The officer turned her attention to Gaston, who had walked over to her slowly, his passive posture indicating that he was indeed associated with the silent trio.
Gaston gave the officer a reassuring look and turned to the three cowed men, who were looking at him earnestly, in search of assistance. “Professor Zulecken - perhaps you can enlighten the officer.”
Zulecken, who was not at all pleased that he had been singled out to provide an explanation, nonetheless opened his mouth to give some kind of answer, before discovering he was at a loss for words, whereupon he closed it again, and altered his gaze, as though he were trying to tell the time on Gaston’s watch.
“Well, sir?” the officer insisted.
Zulecken swallowed. “It’s nothing, really.”
“It didn’t look like nothing to me. You do know that it is very inappropriate to create disturbances at the airport?”
“Yes, but -“
“And you must know that it is our responsibility to treat every disturbance as though it might represent a threat.”
“I - I uh - there was certainly no threat, sir, ma’am uh, I mean, officer sir -“
“No physical threat was at stake, madam,” interjected Duncan haughtily, “but this man” - he had raised his finger again, this time to point at Clark - “made a remark that threatened the cultural fabric of our nation - ”
“I did not! Quite the opposite!” Clark responded angrily, the blood rushing to his face as he raised his voice, and a finger, pointing up: “I simply asserted that Canadian poetry need not always be about Canadian - “
The fight, apparently, was back on. The lead officer, who along with her colleagues now looked more curious than worried, turned to Gaston and, keeping one eye on the feuding men, asked quietly: “Are they drunk?”
Gaston smiled at the pretty officer. “No, they are not drunk, officer, I can assure you of that. These three men are simply - well, they are intellectuals, and they take matters of culture very seriously.”
Suspecting that he was playing a game with her, the officer turned her eyes to look directly at Gaston, and the young man was pleased to see that she appeared to like what she saw, though she hid it under a mask of professional appraisal. “What do you suggest we do with them?” she asked.
Gaston looked deeply into her dark brown eyes. “If you exercise your authority, I am sure they will submit to you, and do whatever you ask. Perhaps if you suggest indignity and… exposure?”
The officer’s focus retreated slightly, then returned to meet Gaston’s gaze with a barely discernable but decidedly playful glint. She opened her mouth to say something, but closed it and favoured Gaston with a slight smile instead, and then turned sharply and marched up to Clark and Duncan, who were again being kept apart by the diplomatic Zulecken.
”You three!” she spat at them in a commanding tone.
The men turned to look at her.
“If you don’t shut up I’m going to arrest all of you.”
The word “arrest” shocked Clark and Duncan out of their argument.
“You - ” she pointed to Zulecken - “you tell me what this is all about.”
Zulecken looked a little stunned. Not only was he surprised at having been singled out again - after all, he had clearly been trying to put an end to the fight - but he was being placed in a rather impossible situation, for if he described the argument in a manner that seemed to favour one side rather than the other, he would inevitably alienate himself from either Clark or Duncan.
“Out with it!” said the officer, who had grown somewhat impatient, as indeed had the crowd of spectators, some of whom had by this time moved on, though there were others who had remained, eager to hear what the fight had been about, and to see if there was any more excitement in store for them in the unfolding spectacle. Flashes of light flickered over the scene from outstretched phones.
“Well uh,” Zulecken began, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the officer’s shoes, “officer, the uh, argument began when Professor Clark” - here Zulecken extended the index finger of his left hand to point to Clark - “who is a celebrated professor of Canadian literature, disagreed with Mr. Duncan” - here Zulecken extended the index finger of his right hand to do the same to Duncan - “who is a celebrated Canadian poet, over the meaning of the manifest dullness in the poetry of A.F. Horowitz” - here Zulecken looked confused and his pointing fingers faltered, before he finally pointed them both at the ground - “who is a celebrated poet and professor here in Toronto.”
Zulecken raised his eyes and saw that the remaining spectators were listening intently to what he was saying, and when he recognized that he had an audience before him, the authority of the professor, who spends his career speaking to captive audiences of systematically subordinate people whose very presence is an acknowledgment of his hierarchical superiority, returned to him quite naturally, and he turned his eyes to the officer, his confidence renewed, and steadily met her steady gaze.
“Mr. Duncan, being a man with powers in his own field of expertise that are as exceptional as those of Professor Clark are in uh, in his own, pursued his argument in spite of the professor’s contradiction, reasserting and expanding upon his prior claim that the dullness and indeed the insipidity of Horowitz’s poetry had no special meaning connected with Canadian or any other identity, and that the poetry is, to put it crudely, just plain boring. At this point Professor Clark responded with what - yes, Clark, I must put it this way - with what was an unfortunate reference to the authority he commanded on the topic of poetry by virtue of his many years teaching it, which made the argument rather personal. Duncan responded with a matching reference to the authority he commanded on the topic of poetry by virtue of his many years actually writing it. The professor then replied with some heat - you must understand how important these matters are” - here Zulecken, having found his stride, stared at the unmoved officer rather sternly, and reached out for a cup from which to take a sip of water, and, finding none there, pointed again at the now silent and attentive combatants - “you must, I say, understand how the opinions of these two men not only shape but give voice to our culture, and cultural, uh, theory.
“The professor replied, as I was saying, that the assessment of poetry is the proper province of the critic and not the poet, just as the interpretation of dreams is the proper province of the analyst and not the dreamer; to which the poet replied, himself growing rather heated - yes, Duncan, I must admit this too - to which the poet replied provocatively that a professor was not a critic, and that the proper province of a teacher is his classroom, where he talks to children, at whose level he not only talks but also thinks. The professor then stated, his fists having become clenched - yes, officer, I am very observant, you see - with his fists clenched he stated that the government should make a law that academics, rather than poets, who clearly had contempt for the readers they presumably wrote for, should dominate the bureaucracy guiding Canadian culture, to protect it from the misguided interventions of scribblers with no knowledge of the wider philosophical and historical issues at stake in the process of disseminating the grants that form the foundation of every Canadian artist’s career. This prompted the poet to reply that those who teach do not do, and thus systematically distance themselves from any responsibility for the creation of the culture they feed upon like parasites, and destroy our culture by virtue of their constitutional uncreativity and secret hatred for those who actually write the works that people read, and their open contempt for almost everyone else, with the exception of other professors who share their opinions.
“And so, you will see, officer, how serious the discussion had become, for the protection of Canadian culture, and therefore Canadian society, our national cultural security, you might say, was now at stake, with the professor claiming a greater power to protect us than the poet, and the poet a greater power than the professor. And while I do not believe that either man would have descended uh - descended to the level of, as it were, leveling the other, I should admit that I am in fact in part responsible for the escalation of the conflict, for by placing myself between them and attempting to find a middle ground between their incompatible positions, I only confirmed the implication that they might indeed come to blows, by removing its actual possibility altogether. Thus, and rather paradoxically I must say, with a buffer, meaning myself, between them, they could each of them posture more aggressively than they would were there no one between them. And thus a dire rhetorical threat could now be made precisely because of the impossibility that it could be carried out….”
While Zulecken carried on, the officer stepped a little closer to Gaston. Though she kept her eyes on the diminutive orator, who gave no indication by tone or manner that he had approached anything like the end of his explanation, she turned her lips toward the young man and whispered: “Seriously, is he drunk?”
“No, officer, he’s simply very sincere.”
The officer looked hard at Gaston closely, almost let out a smile again, then turned and said firmly to Zulecken: “I understand.”
Zulecken, carried away by the full force of his oration, his hands now held out before him as though he were balancing two balls, stopped talking, but kept his mouth open in astonishment, as he and his two colleagues turned their direct attention to the officer.
“You see, we have a similar argument in my profession. The lawyers, like your professors, work in safe rooms, dealing with - aftermaths, and precedents, making arguments, and spending years beforehand studying the details and philosophies of the law as a theory. The officers, like your poets, have a working understanding of the laws, and they are the ones who bring criminals to court to be debated by the lawyers. They are also the ones whose failure, and sometimes whose success, means harm to themselves - in effect, they take the risks. And so when we argue about what we are doing, we do so from two very different perspectives, and disagreement is inevitable. Our feelings are inevitably hurt. But underneath it all we know that we are each carrying out crucial and complementary activities, however incompatible they are in some ways.”
Gaston was impressed, not only by the appropriateness of the analogy, which the officer had clearly constructed on the spot, but also by the extent to which she had achieved her intended result. Zulecken had let out his air and looked relieved, perhaps of his responsibility for mediating the dispute, while Professor Clark was leaning back on his heels and nodding, clearly pleased at being compared to a lawyer, while Poet Duncan had folded his arms and spread his legs wide, clearly pleased at being compared to a cop.
“Exactly,” said Clark in an authoritative tone.
“Well said, young lady,” said Duncan, in his deep performance voice.
“Am I to understand that your dispute has been settled, then?” the officer said professionally.
“Well,” said Clark, “the dispute, as you implied so well, is in a sense irresolvable - “
Duncan frowned, the officer frowned, Zulecken looked bewildered, and the resourceful Quebecker quickly took action, possessed by no doubt that Clark was capable of extending the conflict in spite of all, when there were in fact far more pressing matters at hand, including a plane to be boarded.
“Sir,” said Gaston, gesturing politely to Clark, “I think we should thank the officer here for resolving our situation so effectively, and for being so patient with us while we clearly created some difficulties for her and her colleagues.”
Clark looked at Gaston sternly, aware that what the young man was saying was right, but naturally offended at having been interrupted. “And if we don’t get moving, we’ll miss our flight.”
At the mention of missing their flight, the attention of our three Canadian heroes was immediately focused. Clark glanced quickly at his watch and nervously thanked the officer for her forbearance, while Zulecken looked around with a kind of anxious relief, having suddenly realized that anyone in the departing crowd could easily have taken off with their carry-on bags while they were arguing. Duncan, having found his bag, moved closer to Gaston, trying almost successfully to bury his own mounting anxiety beneath a stoic countenance.
Gaston would have liked to have said goodbye to the officer, but she had already begun walking away, surrounded by the backs of her wider colleagues, and, in any case, he was already surrounded by his superior charges, who were nervously asking him where to go, and what to do, and how to get to security, and how long it would take, and would they be late, and from which gate would their flight depart? As he turned away from his examination of the officer’s back, he let out a sigh and began to guide the men to the plane, wondering silently: if the professors are the lawyers and the poets are the police, then who are the judges? And who are the criminals?
Clark, Duncan and Zulecken, somewhat chastened by their brush with the authorities, and perhaps simply tired after their morning’s adventures, made it through security without any meaningful mishaps, though Zulecken had to go through the detector multiple times, on each occasion removing yet another camping item - hat, carabiner, and such. After Zulecken had carefully reaccoutred himself, the little group made its way through the airport silently, their carry-on bags trailing solemnly behind them on their rollers, until at last they reached their gate, following Gaston’s efficient lead.
They were among the last passengers to board the plane, and found that none of them were seated next to each other - by Gaston’s unspoken design. None mentioned this and none complained.
Up to this point Duncan had followed Gaston stoically, deliberately focusing on everything but the fact that he had just entered the metal tube which was to be blasted aloft and kept up there by a sustained explosion before they reached St John’s. The old man even managed to stow his bag and sit down in his window seat, pretending that he was on a train for yet another journey to Ottawa, or somewhere equally unthreatening.
But when an Air Canadia flight attendant, looking every bit like Stéphane Dion, came by and, with his curiously soft, white hands, indicated to Duncan that he must fasten his seat belt, the poet lost his ability to suspend disbelief and began to feel panic instead. He looked out the window, guided by some subtle instinct for escape, and, instead of seeing what he was accustomed to seeing when he travelled - the countryside, trees, farms, houses, all naturally at eye level - what he saw set his powerfully trained imagination to work.
He was, he saw, seated right on top of the wing! There was an engine on it - was that where the explosion was sustained, he wondered? Presumably there was another engine on the other wing. How could both possibly be sustained at the same rate and power for any period of time? What if one explosion slowed down? Would they start flying in a circle? What if one engine stopped entirely - would that mean the wing it was on would fall, and that the plane would be sustained by the other wing, flying perpendicular to the earth? Or would it crash down in an arc, driven even faster to the earth by the force from the engine that hadn’t stopped? And if both engines stopped - would there be time to put on their parachutes? Surely there were parachutes? And presumably the engines were powered by fuel - but where was the fuel kept? Presumably in the belly of the plane - which meant that they were seated on top of a giant tank of fuel designed and intended - to explode! No, surely the whole thing was impossible, he concluded frantically.
The flight attendant began going through the standard security motions, accompanied by a video shown on a screen on the back of each seat. Duncan listened with rapt attention, prevented from hyperventilating only by the strength that came from his need to find out where the parachutes were. He could block out everything else, perhaps, if only he knew where those cloudy silken saviours were stowed. But the attendant made no mention of parachutes and neither did the video - though there was an odd reference to what to do if they landed in the water, a possibility which had been beyond even Duncan’s powerful facility for fantasy, and which he managed to block out entirely, even as the details regarding the life jackets were being relayed by the Stéphane Dion-lookalike, who turned his head and pretended to blow into a tube attached to the bright yellow life vest he was now wearing, and then turned his head, rather comically, in the other direction, and pretended to blow into a red plastic whistle, also attached to the vest. Confused, and deluding himself with the comforting thought that the incompetent flight attendant had simply forgotten about the parachutes, Duncan picked up the security guide from the seat back in front of him, and searched frantically for any hint as to where they were kept.
The dawning realization that there were, in fact, no parachutes, began to fill Duncan with a new feeling, one that almost matched his fear in its intensity: despair. He could either fly, and surely die, or else create a disturbance by getting off the plane, at which point he could surely no longer hide from the country the fact that he, the great Duncan, was afraid to fly. And that too would mean the death, not of the man, but of the author, of the personality who was presumed to inform the meaning of each and every one of his lifetime’s worth of works. And on top of everything else, it would expose him as being terribly provincial - what kind of sophisticated intellectual has never been on airplane? - by virtue of being very poorly travelled: how worldly could a man be, after all, if he had never been very far away from home? Or overseas? His international reputation would be ruined, and those graduate students and professors who did not abandon reading his work, would surely begin to read his fear of flying into everything he had ever written. Lines like:
Flew the blue jay through the sky The north’s true champion ascendant Over the eagle, reversing Its cruel inversion
… instead of being understood as a hymn to Canada’s first World Series victory, would instead perhaps be understood as mere wish fulfillment or even a projection of inferiority, a backhanded acknowledgement of weakness. Worse yet, his remaining readers might begin to psychoanalyze his particular fear and read that back into all of his work, and presumptuously even into his life, even those parts that appeared to have nothing to do with flying. What was it Freud had said about the fear of flying? And perhaps worst of all, rather than being regarded as the poet of the Canadian landscape, the relater and indeed the definer of the traditional Canadian relationship to the land, he would be seen instead as a sad conservative clown, an old man stuck in a previous age, and all of the tenets and principles of Canadian culture he had spent a lifetime creating and endorsing and spreading would be seen as belonging to a time that was past, and could not be recovered, and was, indeed, based, in the end, on fear, and weakness, and deceit.
The engines, whose hum Duncan had not noticed, began to get louder, and he realized that the door in front had long been closed. The funny-looking flight attendant with no chin was nowhere to be seen. Duncan’s field of vision seemed to shrink, the interior of the plane to grow darker. But no, the poet thought, he must not stop the plane, he must think of his reputation, which meant he must also think of his country. He grasped the armrest as tightly as he could - having unconsciously crumpled the security pamphlet into a ball in his left hand - and gritted his teeth in determination.
But then the noise of the engines grew even louder, and the plane lurched forward, and Duncan looked out the window and saw that something within the engine had begun to spin, impossibly fast. All those moving parts - what if there were one mistake - just one - the plane was mechanical but the men who made it were not infallible - what if just one screw was loose? No - it was impossible - it would never work - surely the pilot would stop the plane - yes, it was all a joke.
But then he saw, out the plane window and beyond the engine, another plane take off in the distance, and knew at once both that it was no joke at all, and that there was no way he could possibly let the plane he was on take off.
“Monsieur Duncan,” he heard a calm voice say from behind him, just as he had began to fumble with his seat belt, and had opened his mouth to demand an immediate halt to the plane’s progress, for the sake of his own exit. Surprised, Duncan turned his head and saw that Gaston was seated behind him. “Would you like a couple of mints, Monsieur Duncan?” the young Quebecker asked again.
Duncan’s mouth remained open. The great poet was about to commit an act of cultural suicide, and here he was, being offered mints!
“They are the new kind I was telling you about in the airport - they act immediately,” urged Gaston, seeing the mixture of fear and incomprehension on Duncan’s face.
Duncan had indeed, and perhaps understandably, forgotten entirely about Gaston’s promised pills throughout his recent ordeal. He had tried to push everything associated with airplanes and airports from his mind during the concentrated exercise in self-imposed repression he had undertaken as he boarded the plane. But now that he was reminded of the young man’s drugs, Duncan’s mind, perhaps inspired by his fear, began working more quickly than usual, and he immediately recovered himself.
“Ah - yes, young man, that is very kind of you,” he replied, responding subtly to Gaston’s subtle wink.
Gaston leaned forward and reached out his right hand between the seat and the plane window, his palm closed and down, until it was over Duncan’s right hand, palm up and open. Deftly Gaston opened his hand and retracted his arm, while Duncan, without closing his palm, brought his hand up to his mouth and immediately swallowed the pills without even looking at them.
He turned again to look at Gaston. “They work immediately?”
“Count backwards from ten in your head, and by the time you reach zero they are guaranteed to take effect.”
“Thank you,” replied Duncan, turning back and resting his head on the seat, and beginning to count back from ten. As the engine noise grew louder, and the plane began to move faster, he closed his eyes and focused desperately on the numbers. Ten - nine - eight - seven - six - five -
And, miraculously, just as the plane took off, Duncan’s tormented face went slack, his mouth fell open, and he fell fast asleep, dreaming about Stéphane Dion blowing a whistle and swinging a baseball bat, upside-down.
Shortly after the plane rose and Duncan fell into his somatoform slumbers, our poet was followed into this passive state by the innocent Zulecken, who always fell asleep, like a carefree child, whenever he rode in any moving vehicle, including, much to his embarrassment when he was at one time entertaining a romantic interest in Montreal, horse and buggy. The young but exhausted Gaston, who was relieved to find that his strategy with Duncan had indeed succeeded, after the Frenchman had ventured so far as to poke the imposing poet’s unresponsive shoulder around the back of his seat, took only a few minutes longer to fall asleep himself. The extra preparations heaped upon him the night before by Duncan and Zulecken had robbed him of all but two hours’ rest, and so even the uncomfortable Air Canadia seat was for him a sufficient bed, and the weird institutional space of the airplane an adequate bedroom. Fortunately for their fellow passengers, none of our heroes was given to snoring, though Zulecken, whose hat had fallen to his side and hung there suspended by its string from his neck, had by virtue of bodily neccessity occupied both armrests of his aisle seat, and his gentle girth thus prevented his anxious window-seated neighbour any chance at a polite skirting for the inevitable trip to the toilet.
Clark, however, was unable to take similar advantage of the opportunity for a nap. For beneath the accommodating mask of his simultaneously pleasant and impassive countenance, our hero was - anxious. Though Clark had secured Zulecken’s endorsement of his superior authority for the project, the argument afterwards with Duncan left no doubt in Clark’s mind that the poet would refuse to submit, or cooperate, in the same way. The matter was far from being merely theoretical, for Clark had still not solved the divisive problem introduced by the presence of others in his project. The most pressing issue was still the planned opening ceremony, when they would dip their toes in the Atlantic, which would take place immediately upon their arrival in St John’s, and would mark the formal commencement of their symbolic journey across the land. The Canadian Literature professor had, indeed, become obsessed with the order and manner in which the three collaborators would baptize themselves in the great ocean where Canada’s first settlers had landed; for this order would constitute the relative symbolic importance of each in the ensuing project, and the ceremony had thus become a synechdoche for the establishment of the entire project. Or so it seemed to Clark, for so would any sophisticated reader have interpreted such an episode, were it to take place in a novel.
It was a vexing problem, and resolving it would require fine diplomatic dexterity. Clark was well aware of Duncan’s penchant for attracting the spotlight - his behaviour at the meeting in Macdonald Hall, and unprecedented hijacking of Clark’s bandwagon, were proof enough of that. Clark considered simply announcing the order, and imperiously allocating the second position to Duncan, but knew that Duncan would certainly understand what was at stake in that announcement and demand priority. With a man like Duncan, Clark understood, straightforward belligerence could not be overcome by the offering of belligerence in turn, as their learned but heated disagreement over the merits of Horowitz’s dullness had shown. Perhaps some form of light deception would work, he wondered - but the honest Clark knew he had no gift for it, and besides, if he did once go down that path, he would always know that his quest for Canadian identity had begun with something like a lie, which would, in a sense, corrupt his noble national endeavour forever, and in spirit.
As he turned in his aisle seat to gaze over his neighbour’s knees and out of the airplane’s window into the passing Ontario sky, the troubled professor noticed that the young man sitting next to him appeared to be studying him intently. Perhaps in his late twenties, with a boyish face, the young man was dressed casually, rather like a student, in black leather shoes, khaki pants, and a t-shirt that showed off his powerful, athletic frame. After a brief, awkward moment, the young man smiled pleasantly and asked: “Pardon me, but are you Professor Gordon Donald Clark?”
This was a somewhat surprising and very gratifying question for the humble professor, especially given his present state of self-doubt. Though he was well-known in his own circles, and had even had some media attention, most of those circles were limited to those who had an academic interest in Canadian Literature, and most of that attention took place either on the campus or on the state-run radio, rather than on television. Thus, while it was not unprecedented, it was nevertheless quite rare for him to be recognized by the random public. It happened occasionally that he ran into a former student, though if that were the case, he thought, the young man would have been unlikely to have asked him the question regarding his identity with such uncertainty. “Yes, I am,” Clark replied, blushing slightly, and he asked, paradoxically but characteristically, in a rather ingratiating manner: “Have we met before? If so, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize - “
“No need to apologize, professor,” the young man replied confidently. “I studied English Literature as an undergraduate and took a course in Canadian Literature, so of course I’ve read some of your work and I thought I’d recognized you from a photograph at the back of one your books that I read years ago.”
“You must have an excellent memory,” said Clark, instinctively hiding his gratification under a compliment to this stranger. “And what is your name?” he asked, in the tone of a serious but accommodating professor to an interested and ingratiating student.
“Ah,” replied Clark, registering in his voice and on his face his recognition of the unique ethnicity of the name, “and where were you studying for your degree?”
“The University of Saskatchewan.”
“Oh, yes,” said Clark, somewhat embarrassed and at a loss for a reply. “It’s a - uh - it’s a very good university.”
Janson eyed Clark silently, with a serious look that may have been a sign of wounded pride, or a deliberate approximation of such in order to further irritate Clark’s backhanded embarrassment.
“Yes - and - are you still in the field?” asked Clark, averting his eyes.
“No,” replied Janson, who Clark began to suspect was suppressing a smile. “I never really took to it. I went into law.”
“Ah - well, ah good for you,” said Clark, genuinely pleased for the young man, and pleased that he could move on from their awkward moment. “It must have been very interesting, and such a change from Saskatchewan.”
Janson turned his head away for a brief moment, as though he were looking for something out the window, before he turned back and said: “Yeah I guess so. Would have been more interesting at Yale though.”
“Yeah. I always believed Harvard was the best place to be for law, but after I got there I discovered quickly and to my shame that when you’re actually in the halls of power that kind of belief in the best just betrays hopelessly provincial ignorance. Anyways, I only found out after I got there that everybody knows Harvard’s where you go if you don’t have the brains or the background for Yale or if you’re just an asshole who wants to make a shitload of money or get ahead in US party politics. If you’re really interested in the law from an ethical and philosophical perspective you go to Yale. Given the direction I wanted to go Harvard’s turned into a kind of a stain on my rep.”
Clark, genuinely surprised at this revelation, widened his eyes slightly and retreated his gaze. “What direction is that?”
“So you”re doing a PhD?”
Janson’s eyes narrowed, but as he studied Clark’s honest countenance, they relaxed almost immediately, and he broke into an unforced smile.
“Well!” replied Clark, now more than a little embarrassed by his earlier embarrassment. “Which college?” he asked, with a knowing look that was meant to reclaim the natural authority he felt he had somehow lost so far in their conversation. As Clark knew, this was the question that one always asked after an Oxbridge man identified himself as such.
“Gonville and Caius,” the young man sighed in reply, in a slightly unhappy tone, as he lowered his head, and his gaze.
Surprised by this response, Clark said: “But surely you must be very proud! It is one of Cambridge’s most renowned colleges - “
“I thought so too and I guess it’s true but when I got there I realized that it’s also the most boring college in Cambridge, populated for the most part by dim Tories and the sort of foreigners who are attracted to them so lots of people from Ontario which kind of compounds the problem. Its nickname amongst other Cambridge students is Grumble and Beans.”
“Ah,” said Clark, somewhat shocked and a little confused by the young man’s quick and direct speech. “And - and what is the subject of your doctorate?”
“It’s about how a society’s understanding of legal principles and its corresponding laws are affected by that society’s changing understanding of natural law and so nature itself. Naturally enough it’s in the field of environmental law.”
“That’s a very excellent idea, Bjorn,” replied Clark, genuinely impressed.
“Actually it’s my work that brings me to St. John’s - there’s a conference there focusing on international law and the sea - fishing and shipping rights and all that.”
“I find it rather surprising that a young man from the prairies would find himself involved with the law of the sea.”
“I’m not surprised. Anyways, my inspiration came from my summers treeplanting in BC when I was an undergraduate.”
“Ah - you treeplanted - I’ve heard about that but never first-hand - most of my students get internships in offices in Toronto and Ottawa over the summer,” Clark replied, then quickly cleared his throat and asked: “What is treeplanting exactly?”
Janson, politely ignoring Clark’s presumptuous awkwardness, answered: “Well, it’s lots of things, at least to me. It plays a very important role in the lives of those who undertake it - it’s sort of a uniquely Canadian rite of passage, you might say.”
This, of course, changed Clark’s interest in the conversation not only in degree but also in kind. He sat up straight and turned more fully to face Janson. “That is very interesting to me, young man. In fact, my colleagues and I - you may have heard of the poet Hugh Duncan? - and perhaps Professor Zulecken, the famous Toro- the famous Canadian publisher?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of Duncan. A master sopoforician in my opinion. Haven’t heard of Zulecken though - what is Canadian Studies anyway?”
“Well, uh it’s like Canadian Literature, but they also - in any case perhaps we should leave that topic for a later discussion. As I was saying, your description of treeplanting as “a uniquely Canadian rite of passage” - which I must say was very well put, young man, very well put - that description is particularly interesting to me, as my colleagues and I are at this very moment embarking on the first stage of a journey across Canada in order to discover and document real Canadian identity.”
Janson replied with a look that was at once honestly curious and amused.
“And so you see the opportunity to investigate “a uniquely Canadian rite of passage” is of particular importance to me - for what it would say about who we are when we are young and how we become men, I mean grown-ups, that is, when we emerge into adulthood - uh, for what it would say in particular about that transition in relation to our engagement with the land, and of course with respect to the stewardship and maintenance of our great birthright and responsibility, the environment - “
“I think I understand what you’re after. Are you writing a book or something?”
“Well, yes, we will be compiling the results of our research into a text to be named after our project, which I should mention is being generously funded, and which is to be called: “Our Home and Narrative Land: Real Canadian Stories and Real Canadian Identity”.”
“And, young man, seeing that you have given such a - a relevant and interesting description of the meaning of treeplanting in the context of Canadian identity, and seeing that here on this plane we have an excellent opportunity to discuss what you meant, I would like to ask you formally, if you would like to discuss this “rite of passage” with me, so that I may include an account of it in my research?”
Janson looked hard into Clark’s eyes, slightly disrupting the latter’s excitement. Then the young man adopted a serious expression and turned to stare out of the window.
“I can’t tell you,” Clark went on, worried that he might lose this remarkable fish that had so unexpectedly landed on his hook, “how pleased I am that at the very beginning of our journey, even before we have reached our first destination, that we should have had the great good luck - or perhaps great good fate - to have encountered not only a young man with real Canadian experience, but also one who has been trained in the field of Canadian Literature, and is therefore familiar with the history and nature of our national storytelling, our distinct cultural narratology - “
At this point, Janson turned back to face Clark and said: “Well, Professor, I will tell you about my experiences treeplanting, but it may take some time, and I can’t promise a very coherent account. What I can tell you is what I saw and did in my own way, and to some extent what it meant to me - “
“Excellent, young man, excellent. What an exceptional opportunity!”
“And I suppose we’re stuck with each other on this flight anyway.”
“No need to be modest, young man, I assure you I find your company very stimulating. May I - do you mind if I retrieve my notebook?”
“Not at all.”
Clark reached into a pocket inside his coat and, with a slight flourish, brought out a brand new notebook bound in red leather. It was one of twelve which he had bought for the purpose of recording the events of his journey. He carefully opened the notebook to the first white page, and then poised above it a shining new red pen, which he had simultaneously retrieved from his pants pocket. He turned to Janson with an excited look. This was an important moment for his project, and he made no effort to hide his anticipation.
“Well,” Janson began, his eyes fixed on Clark’s pen, “my treeplanting experience began the day after I finished exams at the end of my first year at university. The only person I had ever spoken to about treeplanting was a friend of mine’s older sister, who I thought was about the coolest thing since - anyway, she had all these great stories, and she was editing a local independent music magazine, and one day she snuck me and my friend into a bar when we were still under age. She was probably only 21 at the time but I thought of her as older and I suppose I thought everything she did was part of a better life than I’d lived so far. I was already a little drunk after my second shot of tequila when she started talking about treeplanting. She said it was really hard but that you got to work outside in the mountains every day and live in a tent in a camp, and that as a rookie planter in your first two-month season you could make over five thousand dollars. To me, that was a lot of money, and the mountains part sounded fantastic. I had always loved the mountains and the forests, but had never had - “
“I can only imagine how wonderful the mountains and forests must appear to someone who grew up on a prairie farm,” Clark interjected approvingly, gazing into the imaginary distance, his pen pausing.
“Actually I grew up in Regina.”
“But weren’t your parents farmers? I naturally assumed - “
“No, my mom was a human rights lawyer and my dad was a cultural studies professor.”
Clark, somewhat confused, and sensing angrily that on some obscure level he ought to feel ashamed of something he didn’t fully understand or really feel guilty for, poised his red pen again as an indication that he expected Janson to continue his tale.
After a brief pause and again giving the impression that he was barely suppressing a smile, Janson continued. “So, I’d never had any real experience in the bush, even though I found it very attractive. Did you get that?”
“Just a second - yes,” replied Clark, writing furiously.
“So pretty much there in that bar I decided I was going to go planting. The next day, after I peeled my hungover ass out of bed at the crack of two I went to the summer jobs office on campus and applied for a planting job. I got a couple of interviews. The first one went pretty badly - I’d never had a job before, and the interviewer was one of those ignorant shits who thinks if you haven’t grown up on a farm getting fat on a tractor or spent your summers in high school in a Dairy Queen kitchen filling your pasty face with acne then you probably have a bad work ethic - anyway the second guy who interviewed me, a veteran planting foreman named Shaun, was about 21 and so also seemed older to me, but we got along well enough I guess that he decided to take a chance on me.
“So the day after I finished my exams I got up early and went over to Shaun’s house to go treeplanting. The most important thing to note at this point is that for me it was a big dive off a very deep end - I had no real idea of what I was going to be doing and where I was going to be doing it and who I would be doing it with. It was the beginning of my first real adventure in life, the first time, as something other than a child, that I was going to be in a totally new situation with no one around who had any idea about me or my history or my personality. In effect it was the first situation in my adult life where I had to establish my identity like that and would at the same time see how my identity would be established from a blank slate. With the exception of my first hand job, it was the most exciting moment of my life to that point.”
At this, Clark’s pen faltered for a moment, but he quickly decided to push on and ignore his interviewee’s bawdy insensitivity.
“In the house were about twenty strangers to me, mostly in their very early 20s, plus my new boss Shaun who I’d met only the once at the interview. After a short five minute speech to the crew Shaun said it was time for us all to divide up into groups and get going. Before I really knew what was happening he put me in a group of four others and we were outside beside a big rusty beat up old blue van throwing our things inside, then getting inside ourselves, and then we were on our way. There were no seat belts on the seats in the back, and I remember that added a sense of recklessness to the whole endeavour. I didn’t even know where we were going, except that it was somewhere in BC, and it wasn’t until I asked how long it would take that the driver mentioned our destination was a place called Prince George, which I’d never heard of, and that we were going to have to stop in Jasper for the night before making it to PG by the middle of the next day.”
“Ah yes,” interjected Clark, more out of a need to rest his already aching hand, perhaps, than from any sense that he had anything relevant to contribute. “Jasper, such a beautiful place, with such a remarkable role in the history of the settling of the West -“
“And the STD capital of Canada.”
“Yeah there’s a big community of young folks who head out there every year to work in the hotels and restaurants or whatever and party and man they spread it around. You don’t double bag it you’re putting your life in someone else’s - “
“I - I think I understand,” Clark cut in quickly. “Please go on with your story.”
“I would get to know three of my four companions pretty well as we planted together over the next couple of months. The first guy I talked to, the driver, was a guy named Stan Kowalski, sort of a weird guy with eyes wide apart whose driving skills matched to the quality of his van. He didn’t talk much but when he did it always seemed a little paranoid. He was older than the rest of us - like 38 - so we ended up calling him Grandpa. We weren’t very nice to him but he was the sort of person no one’s very nice to.
“The second guy I talked to was named Sidney Feinberg. He managed to snag shotgun - “
Clark’s eyes widened. “A shotgun! In the van! I knew Westerners liked guns, but - well, being a - ahem, a city boy, I imagine you were unfamiliar with such things, and you must have been, uh rather intimidated by the presence of such a dangerous weapon, and among strangers, no less - “
Janson’s eyes widened slightly. “‘Shotgun’ is slang for the front passenger seat.”
Clark took a moment to process this, and sensed that he had some dignity to retrieve. Instinctively, he fell back on his established professional linguistic expertise and asked, in a slightly imperious tone: “I see. Is that slang peculiar to the Saskatchewan dialect?”
“No. Though we do have some slang, now that you mention it. What other people call “hoodies” we call “bunny hugs”, I assume because when you put your hands in the pockets of a hoodie they’re sort of in the position a bunny characteristically holds its paws. We also have a slang for procrastination which we call ‘fucking the dog.’”
“Yeah ‘fucking the dog’ and its variant “screwing the pooch” are used to invoke a sense of time wasted. Hence, for example, ‘Last Saturday I didn’t do anything, just sat on my couch all day watching Simpsons reruns and screwing the pooch,’ or ‘I fucked the dog all day at work yesterday.’”
“Anyway this Sidney guy was one of those guys who wears his farm boy upbringing like it’s some kind of special achievement badge, and did not by any means regard himself as a dog-fucker. He immediately discovered that I was a university kid, and I guess to him that marked me as believing I belonged to a better class than regular people, which of course suited his desire to be a working class hero, since to be a hero of course you need a villain - anyways, he then discovered in turn that I was from the city, which of course is a relative term in Saskatchewan, and proceeded to tell me that having grown up on a farm he knew all about hard work and that I was going to have a pretty hard time doing manual labour. I found him a little intimidating, as I had always been a little intimidated by farm kids, who constantly talk about how hard working they are. It didn’t seem to bother his sense of himself as a hard worker that he was only nineteen and already had a big gut going, but I just thought it takes all kinds to make the world, you know.
“The third guy in the van, who was sitting in the middle row of seats with me, was a guy named Jeff Zahorchak. He had a strangely slack jaw and a generally slack appearance - when he wasn’t planting he always wore these ragged surfing shoes - and though he was generally easy going he had a serious streak of paranoia, deeper even than Grandpa’s. Which, I soon came to understand, was the result of a long and serious drug habit of one kind or another. He seemed like an interesting guy but he didn’t really talk much.
“The fourth guy, seated behind me, was diminutive and bespectacled and seemed entirely out of place. His name was Price Vincent I shit you not and he even looked like he had cruel parents. He just sat in the back and didn’t say anything unless he was expressing some kind of worry or discomfort.
“Talk on the drive to Jasper was mostly punctuated by hard-to-believe but somehow convincing stories about how difficult treeplanting was and how something like twenty percent of rookie planters didn’t make it past the first week. Feinberg went on at length telling a series of stories he’d heard on the playground - “
“The playground?” interjected a puzzled, and slightly worried, Clark. “Was he a teacher?”
“No that’s just a way of referring to things you hear as you go about your life that aren’t necessarily very believable and usually have a - colourful quality.”
“Ah, I see,” replied Clark, carefully noting down Janson’s explanation. “Is that more Saskatchewan slang?”
“No I just made it up. As I was saying, Feinberg had heard a bunch of stories about planting from someone or other and had no compunction about repeating them to the rest of us, sort of in the manner of the big fat oafs you see all the time at Tim Horton’s, you know the kind who always sort of holds his head back offensively as though he’s preparing for a confrontation, and who holds forth though as he were some kind of authority when what he’s saying makes Calvin’s dad seem more accurate than the Encyclopaedia Britannica - “
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt you once again so soon, but, may I just ask, who is Calvin’s dad?”
“Just a reference to the father in Calvin and Hobbes who would answer his son’s questions about the way the natural world works with absurdities. Feinberg’s stories were designed to be intimidating and essentially to make him look tough, as though somehow the telling of another’s failure were evidence that he had himself succeeded, or as though he somehow partook of the courage of those whose heroic actions he described - another fat oaf trademark. The first one he told was about a city boy who always got really good grades but had never had a job and who went treeplanting and couldn’t handle the work. That was a pretty obvious shot at me but I just ignored it - Saskatchewan people love to pretend that hard work is some kind of exceptional achievement and exclusive to the kind of people who like to waste their lives on stupid cars and snowmobiles and ATVs and that sort of garbage - “
“It sounds like you have some resentments about your upbringing in Saskatchewan.”
“Yeah there are lots of ways that Canadians keep each other down and each province seems to have its own characteristic ways of limiting its own people. In Saskatchewan, the biggest threat is the kind of loser who invokes “the real world”. Kids get totally poisoned by an affectation of practicality, a, I guess a vain pragmatism, that is used in every instance to impose limits on them. In Saskatchewan people confuse negativity with pragmatism and pretend to know all about “the real world” when what all they really know is the tiny projected world of a narrow-minded bullying thug who insists that his own local environment just happens to be a model for the whole world - “
“Ah, yes, I think I see, but uh perhaps we’re getting a little sidetracked….” Clark interjected politely, increasingly aware that his interviewee possessed more than average resources of irascibility and bile, and might even be slightly unbalanced.
“Sorry, you’re right, thanks for that - I have a tendency to go off on ranting digressions. Ah, right - Feinberg’s, I think his second story was about a bear attack.”
“A bear attack!”
“Yeah I found out later that treeplanters pretty rarely suffer from bear attacks and there are other, greater but less romantic dangers involved in the work, but I didn’t know that at the time and the bear thing - well I can’t say it sounded scary actually. I was eighteen years old and the fact is I found the idea that there was a risk of bear attacks - appealing. In Feinberg’s story, some guy was getting into a van with the rest of his crew in the morning before they drove to the clear cut or cut block where they were planting, when he realized he’d left his shovel or something back at his tent. He went back for it and was bending over to open the zipper on his tent when WHACK! a fucking bear smacked him down from behind and he went sprawling, stunned and shocked. I guess that’s how bear attacks often happen - you don’t see or hear the thing coming and it just knocks you down with a swipe from its paw. Before the guy knows what’s happening, he’s in the dirt, winded, and with a bear gnawing on his skull, no kidding.”
Clark’s face lost some colour, but he continued bravely noting down the details of this terrible story, shaking his head in some dismay at the breezy manner in which Janson spoke of such horrible things. “How old was the young man who was being mauled?”
“I think nineteen or twenty. So there he is getting chewed on and the bear eventually lets go. It probably only had hold of him for a few seconds but to the guy of course it felt like forever, and the guy gets up and tries to run, when WHACK! the bear swipes at him again and down he goes. As Feinberg put it, “I guess the bear didn’t like the taste of his head, A-HAW-HAW-HAW, because this time it started chewing the poor fuck’s arm!” Yeah, he talked kind of like that. The same thing happened again, with the bear chewing and letting go, the guy getting up for a brief run and then getting knocked down and gnawed again. After some time some of the planters on the guy’s crew got pissed he was taking so long to get his shovel and taking up their time - planters get paid for every tree they plant and they usually have it down to a science how much money they lose for every minute in the day that’s wasted, I mean they know exactly how many trees they need to plant to pay for a beer, or the rent, or whatever - anyway they went to look for him, and then of course they saw the bear.”
“And what did they do next? Was there a park warden they could go to for help?”
“Well they weren’t exactly working in a fucking Windsor car factory. There were no authorities to appeal or defer responsibility to. Working in the bush is dangerous and if something happens you have to deal with it on your own. The more institutionalized you are, the more likely you are to place responsibility in the hands of some authority figure, and then resent them for the responsibility they have over you even though you gave it to them in the first place, the worse a planter you’ll be, and the greater a danger and a burden you’ll be to others. Working in the mountains, out in nature, you get a very different attitude toward the world from the kind you get from factory people - “
+awk+[Correctly worried that this was the beginning of another rant, and genuinely interested in hearing the fate of the poor mauled planter, Clark asked that Janson continue with his story.]
“Sorry - anyways, the other planters on this guy’s crew saw what was happening, and they started yelling at the bear and picked up some logs or shovels or whatever was lying around and went up and began bashing away at the bear.”
“So the bear lets go of the guy and the guy gets up and runs off, and the bear just goes and whacks him down and starts chewing again, and the planters go up and bash away at the bear again, still yelling.”
“But weren’t they afraid that the bear would turn around and attack them?”
“You know what? I honestly doubt it. They were doing what they thought was right and getting that bear out of there was the only thing that mattered to them at the time. So finally the bear gets up, I’d guess more tired of the yelling than anything else, and runs off.”
“How injured was the young man?”
“Interestingly enough, according to the story he came out pretty well. I guess there was a chopper nearby that they got on the radio while they were giving the guy first aid, and they must have been near a town, but anyway he just lost some blood and had a bunch of stitches on his skull and arms, but he was otherwise fine and I think back at work in a month.”
“Yeah, though Feinberg followed that story with one about what he’d heard was the worst living threat to planters: riggers.”
“Riggers? Is a rigger some sort of animal?”
Janson smiled. “A lot of people would say yes. They’re guys who work on oil rigs.”
“I see,” said Clark.
“According to Feinberg’s source, planters and riggers were sort of natural enemies and prone to fighting each other. The stereotypes, which have a basis in a fair amount of fact, point up the contrast between the two: whereas planters have a pretty high concentration of college kids, riggers, at least back in those days, were mostly determined not to go anywhere near anything as ridiculous as a university; planters are lean and athletic, while riggers are big and brag about how much they can bench; planters are polite and riggers are rough; planters grow dreads and riggers get crew cuts; planters smoke weed and riggers snort coke; planters, basically, are hippies and riggers are jocks.”
“I think I understand,” said Clark, getting in on the game. “Planters listen to Gordon Lightfoot, while riggers listen to BTO.”
“Surely,” said Clark, honestly surprised and somewhat disappointed that his attempt at a pop-culture reference had failed to hit the mark with the young man, “you’ve heard of Bachman Turner Overdrive, the great Canadian rock band?”
“It sort of rings a bell….”
“They are one of our most celebrated bands. They have won at least four Junos.”
For a moment Clark thought Janson was rolling his eyes, but then realized the young man was probably searching his memory.
“You must have heard the song ‘Takin’ Care of Business’?”
“The one that’s in so many commercials?”
“Well, uh, I suppose it is, but, well, you know, many Beatles songs are also in commercials - “
“When did that song come out?”
“They also did ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’.”
“Right, the one they always play during breaks at high school volleyball games. Any other hits?”
“Well, I suppose, not really,” said Clark, a little confused and even a little offended, “but, you must understand, they - the band made a great contribution - they are very - the lead singer, a man named Randy Bachman, was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, no less, young man, in recognition of his great contribution to Canadian culture, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Dauphin, and was even given The Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, our foremost distinction for excellence in the, ah, performing arts, in 2002.”
“Well, those are very impressive honours.”
“I should think so! The award has placed him in the company of many of our greatest performers, such as Buffy St-Marie, and Bruce Cockburn, and - and Michel Pagliaro, no less!”
“You’ve never heard of Pag, Quebec’s first true rock star? He is a key figure in the evolution of pop music in Canada - “
“Perhaps I could get back to - “
“Sorry, of course,” replied Clark, a little worked up. He once again poised his pen for writing, having been waving it about to accentuate his own mild rant. “I just find it shocking that you haven’t heard of Canada’s most celebrated and award-winning performers.”
“I guess I should pay more attention to the CBC or something. Anyway, Feinberg made these rigger guys sound pretty tough. He said you’d usually come across them in towns, at the bar, and that they had no compunction about beating up hippie planters. His story was simple: he said he’d heard that once on their days off a bunch of planters had been beaten up so badly by some riggers that they couldn’t even finish out the season.”
“I say - “
“That’s when Grandpa started telling a story he’d heard from a veteran planter about a planting contract he and his crew had done in a mountain town called McBride. Apparently all the planters in the crew of about 20 or so were experienced and thought they knew how to handle whatever the bush could throw at them. But the first morning when they got to their block a couple of dozen kilometres outside McBride they immediately noticed something different about the place. The area they were supposed to plant was made up of steep, rocky ravines, covered in slash - the bits of trees and bushes and other detritus left over from the logging process - and sharp, vicious, break-your-ankle schnarb - “
“It’s a planting word used to refer to dense growth and general crap you have to climb over and push through in order to get where you’re going on a cut block - a clear cut, where you plant. So, anyway, as soon as these veterans got out of the van, they were totally covered in mosquitoes. They were so bad you could hear the hum all day long, and if you stopped for a second, you would literally be covered in them. I’ve actually seen that kind of thing, and it’s no exaggeration. And that’s not to mention the black flies. Then it turned out, when they start planting, that the ground was really rocky, so they were constantly banging their shovels into rocks, exacerbating the tendonitis that is a common planter’s ailment. Then they saw tracks for a grizzly, which didn’t make things better, and its spectre hung over everything they did the whole time they were there. They found fresh tracks around the cut block almost every morning. Anyway, since they were experienced, they could tell right away this was going to be a horrible place to plant, and while a normal planting work day lasts about twelve hours, not including travel, these guys decided from the start to work fourteen or fifteen hours a day so they could get out of there quicker. But after only a day or two it started to rain hard, and it didn’t let up much for a month. Which was how long it took them to finish planting the godawful place - even though the contract was only supposed to last a week, and they were paid accordingly. That meant half the season was over - and after all that suffering a lot of them actually owed their planting company money, since daily camp costs are docked from your pay.”
“You said it. But I have to say, after all of those stories, I was honestly just more excited about the whole thing. I wanted an adventure and I’d never heard any stories like these - and I was headed right for a life that might provide them. The risks, the effort, these strange people, everything appealed to something deep inside me, something in my character that I had always suspected was there but had never had a chance to test. And now, travelling along with strangers in a shitty van to god knows where, I was going to get my chance.
“That night we stopped in Jasper, met up with the rest of the crew and crammed as many people as we could into some hotel rooms, which turned out to be standard planter procedure. Then we went for pizza together and were regaled with even more planting tales, mostly from our foreman Shaun and from the other veterans on the crew.
“I had another little moment which meant a great deal to me: I bought my first legal beer - the drinking age in Alberta being eighteen, not nineteen like in Saskatchewan. The experience was especially meaningful to me as I came from a family that didn’t drink at all and so it may even have been the first time I ever had a beer with a meal - as simple as it sounds it was an important moment in my life. As I was sipping from that simple nectar talisman of my flowering adulthood - “
Clark paused his pen and looked up at Janson appreciatively. “‘Nectar talisman’ - that is an impressive image, young man. I shall have to repeat it for Duncan - would you object if he used it in a poem commemorating our journey?”
“Not at all,” replied Janson inattentively, his eyes bright and distant. “It was then that I noticed a girl sitting at our table and obviously part of our crew who for whatever reason I hadn’t noticed when we met in the morning at Shaun’s house. She was - she was totally bald and the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, with long, well-defined arms, and an athletic build, full lips, and wonderful green eyes that had a look in them that sent an electric charge through my spine. She was completely unaware of my existence, of course, but I expected nothing else, and just sat there stunned with that sort of awe for beauty that seems to be the special province of young men.”
“And were many of the women you met treeplanting, uh, bald?”
“No, she was the only one who shaved her head completely, but in the company of planters she didn’t stand out at all, for being bald, anyway. Most of the girls who go planting are not, well, they’re the kind of girls who just kind of do what they want. There were lots of people, women and men alike, who had real dreads, for example - “
“What do you mean by “real” dreads?” Clark asked, somewhat pleased with himself for his casual adoption of the young man’s slang.
“I mean as opposed to the fucking vanity dreads that are so - ok - real dreads come from working in the dirt outdoors and serve a real purpose, related to hard work carried out in the natural elements. Vanity dreads are a perverse attempt to appropriate - “
“Ahem, yes, well, you were saying about Jasper…?”
“Ok - anyways - so I’d noticed this girl, but since at that age I thought that expressing any interest whatsoever in a woman was some kind of violation I was doing my best not to look at her, and thankfully Shaun gave me an opportunity to rest my eyes elsewhere by beginning to tell a new planting story from his own and vicarious experiences. I was fast discovering that telling stories was sort of a planter tradition - probably borne out of the fact that they spend so much time together, travelling and waiting, and sitting around campfires or meal tables in mess tents with no TV or whatever - “
“Aha - this is wonderful - a truly Canadian tradition of storytelling!”
“Maybe, if you include in your definition of “Canadian” activity that is not carried out or taken up under the aegis of some kind of nationalist program governed by a granting council devoted to cultural insularity and nepotism. The kind of weak bullshit that’s promoted by the fucking losers at the arts councils and taken up by the CBC or the various state-appointed mandarins of what counts as Canadian culture, that’s not the kind of thing planters are doing when they’re telling stories, and unlike the fucking CRTC they don’t care if the person telling the story is Canadian or not, like some kind of twisted ethnic profiling to protect and conserve that even the BNP or the Front Nationale don’t dare to dream of - “
At this point Clark, who had never heard this kind of talk before, and whose gentle sensibility led him to be genuinely shocked, cut in: “But surely Canadian culture requires protection by the state from the foreign influences that would dominate - “
“It’s fucking xenophobia. Literally. But because it’s carried out in the name of Canada, which in our discourse is not supposed to be xenophobic, we can’t even admit the fact that our cultural protectionism, which we say we endorse in order to protect our culture from the corruption of foreign influence, is in fact meant to shield the purity of some ersatz simulacrum of a Canadian culture from the corruption of difference, or dissent, which all gets taken up under the concept of ‘foreign’. In other words, if you dissent, you’re not Canadian. And then instead of a culture, we get a nationalist program, and instead of difference, we get identity. We all know any artist who doesn’t conform is represented as not truly Canadian.”
“But - “
“I mean, it’s no fucking joke, its fucking real. I once knew a girl who was applying to do her MFA at a Canadian university, and the board she applied to actually told her to her face that she should abandon her planned project and replace it with work on “something to do with the land” - because she was native. And though that’s bad enough to earn a special place in hell, these moron profs actually thought their vicious suggestion was an expression of racial sensitivity. I mean seriously, this was meant to be taken as a left-wing thing to do - anyways, substitute for that girl all would-be artists in Canada, substitute the subject of landscape for “truly Canadian” content, and those profs for the exclusive claim upon the arts held by the all the fucking arts councils, and you might begin to understand what’s happened to “the arts” in Canada. And if you want to understand what kind of people in Canada call themselves artists, think about the kind of person who would have accepted the profs’s suggestion and internalized it.” At this, Janson stopped, breathing heavily, clearly very worked up, even clenching his hands into fists, unconsciously. “Did you know the pricks at the CRTC actually talk about placing restrictions on our access to foreign content on the internet - “
“But what about supporting Canadian artists? Surely they need the support of the government in order to - “
“Fuck that shit. All those laws and that wasted funding do is support a class of untalented boring halfwits who drive away interesting people by denigrating any work that’s done outside the confines of the government institutions that dole out arts grants, and let me say it here that they do it with money that would be better spent feeding the poor and getting old people out of poverty. People are not going to stop writing and singing just because - ok - anyways, so what you end up with is mindless drone culture soldiers who believe that anything done outside the state is evil, and so you end up with all the weirdnesses of a police state, but in the arts. I mean for example the truth is that no one really gives a single flying fuck about Anne Murray, of all fucking people, but if you watch the CBC you’d think she’s - “
That final line crossed by the irascible young man was one line too far for the professor. Indeed, inside, Clark was fuming and confused, finding it difficult to believe that Janson could possibly have meant what he said. But then the professor reflected upon the fact that, of course, he had not vetted his interviewee beforehand, and had indeed known nothing whatever about him, when he had engaged with him - he had studied no CV, read no reference letters, seen no grades, had heard no opinion from a friend or colleague, and the young man had not been judged to be acceptable by an appointed panel or jury; the young man and his story, to put it precisely, had not been, as they say on the crime shows, processed, and so his opinions could not be relied upon to be appropriate for his project.
But then Clark confronted the fact that this was precisely the kind of unexpected result he should expect, now that he was out in the world collecting stories, and that hearing unfamiliar opinions, sometimes with no content besides an intention to provoke him, was an inevitability, given the nature of his expedition; it was in fact in the very nature of his project. This uncertainty of the public, he realized, he simply had to accept, if he were not to abandon his narrative altogether, and return to his office, and his old, familiar, books.
Thus girded by his hope and by his duty to carry out truly unprecedented research, Clark decided that the opportunity to include Janson’s stories in Our Home and Narrative Land was too important to let the young man’s extreme opinions get in the way of having them recorded. Clark could always leave anything offensive out of his account of the encounter when he eventually compiled his notes into the planned book.
His own anger successfully suppressed, the patient professor politely held his pen aloft as he eyed the young man sternly. At least, he hoped, perhaps in the future he would not encounter such idolatrous anger, which must surely be unique to this strange young scholar.
“Ah, you were saying, about Shaun’s stories….”
“Sorry,” replied Janson, himself rather red in the face. “It’s just that I grew up thinking all artists were assholes possessing at best something less than mediocre intelligence and a sense of self-importance that varies inversely with their talent, a sense of relevance that varies inversely with the - the critical depth and courage of their work, and it wasn’t until I left Canada that I realized it was just Canadian artists that were exclusively like that and so then I set about trying to understand why, because it’s such an incredibly important part of a robust culture, of a good culture, to have artists who are… who are not….” He stared out of the plane sadly. “It’s a terrible thing, to do that, to say that someone carrying out state-sanctioned projects, whose writing will inevitably reflect the writing they did when they submitted the right grant applications written in the right way, to say that these people carrying out state policies are the only real artists precisely because they are effectively civil servants, precisely because they exclude from culture anything that is contrary to the state’s ministry…. It’s so fucking weak…. I mean, artists are supposed to be critics of society, public critics, not public servants, they should be as was said of Milton of the devil’s party, and in Canada the “arts community” has become so complacent that they have actually come to believe that you must be in the pay of the state in order to be a social radical. Just think about that. We’re so pathetic, such laughingstocks, when people pay us any attention, which is rare, because what we do is so - dull. We’ve sucked the blood out of cultural discourse, we’ve turned our writing into the literary equivalent of a night on the town in Ottawa, we’ve driven so many people with important things to say, things we need to hear, this fucking weak hypocritical bullshit has driven so many away, it’s taken all the arts and twisted them into some kind of callow, unctuous hypocrisy….” Pausing, Janson stared out the window, scowling at the white fluffy clouds passing thoughtlessly below him.
After some time, Janson cleared his throat and continued with his tale, much to the relief of the professor, who feared he may have lost hold of his subject.
“Anyways, Shaun told one story that kind of freaked me out. It was about the worst first day of planting he had ever heard of. This girl, I think she had come all the way from Quebec, had come treeplanting because she’d heard it was good money, but she hadn’t really been told anything else about what it was like, and though she wasn’t lazy or incompetent she was basically unprepared for the experience. But as Shaun said, pretty much nobody would have persevered after what she endured that first day.
“It began early in the morning, still nighttime but technically the morning of her first day planting. Apparently she had some trouble setting up her tent the night before, and in the night it collapsed on her. She’d already been a bit nervous about being in the bush and surrounded by all these weird strangers, and let me tell you most mums wouldn’t want their daughters hanging around some of those guys unless she was one tough fucking customer and went with a couple of friends, but anyway, so her tent collapses in the middle of the night, and she wakes up with a start, in the dark on the cold side of an unfamiliar mountain, with everything falling down around her. She starts flailing around and yelling, thinking probably that there must be a bear or a rapist or something attacking her, and anyway since it’s dark and she’s thrashing around in her sleeping bag she just gets wrapped up more in the thin synthetic fabric of her tent, and even starts to roll down the gentle slope towards this nearby creek a little. Of course the other planters with their tents around all get up - or at least some of them bothered to - and they’re pissed off a bit because they’ve lost some sleep already, but when they find out there’s no problem and the girl just freaked out and couldn’t even put up a tent properly, they helped her and didn’t say anything but they were obviously a little disgusted.
“As a result by the first morning of the season’s planting the girl was sort of infamous in the camp and already universally disliked. It didn’t make any difference that there was no good reason for it. Since many of the other planters hadn’t met each other before and weren’t the kinds who would normally get along with each other out in the world, her incident had become an available topic for discussion that united strangers even before she woke up. Which as it turned out was late, either because she didn’t hear her alarm or because it didn’t go off, but in any case someone had to go get her when everyone was already gathering by the big rollagon to prepare for the day - “
“What’s a ‘rollagon’?”
“It’s a planter word for generally a big industrial truck that can take many forms, like with treads or wheels, covered or uncovered, whatever, that’s used to carry planters and equipment to their cut blocks.
“So anyway, this girl, she’s late and doubly embarrassed now and hurrying and of course it’s too late for her to go to the mess tent and make a lunch for later in the day like everyone else had already done, let alone eat any breakfast. So she rushes over to the staging area with everyone staring at her, and the asshole camp supervisor has already gathered all the crews together, like 60 people, to tell them the details about their work on this contract, and the hardhearted fucker points her out when she arrives and says being late isn’t fucking acceptable from any of his fucking planters and if anyone’s late twice they’re fired since being late holds everybody else up and fucks the whole operation.”
“On that note,” interjected Clark, looking around somewhat worriedly and hushing his voice as he leaned over to Janson, “I have noticed that you have been using the, uh the f-word in your, uh, speech, and I was wondering if you could, perhaps uh, tone it down, for the sake of our fellow passengers on this journey.”
Janson simply stared at him with hard eyes and said nothing, which prompted Clark to explain himself further.
“I mean, I must say that, as a Professor of Literature, of course I myself have no problem with the, the ribald, the profane, in fact I once wrote an essay on the use of profanity in dialogue and the characterization of immigrant Irish maids in the contemporary Maritime historical novel, so I, so I am something of an expert in these matters. But, but I do think it is important that we not offend our fellow passengers, who are on this journey with us, and if they were to pay attention could hear every word we say, and may not, well you know, they might not appreciate….”
Janson continued to stare, making Clark feel more and more uncomfortable.
“I mean, of course, I can always edit the profanity out of your tale when my research is finally published, as it will be unnecessary to include such provocative uh phraseology in order to give an accurate account….”
“It’s absolutely necessary for me to include the fucks in order to give an accurate account of my experience.”
“Well, let me give you an example. If I had formulated my last phrase in planterspeak, I would have said: “Fuck, it’s absolutely fucking necessary to include the fucks in order to give a fucking accurate account of my fucking experience, fuck”.”
“I - I don’t understand,” replied Clark, as he nervously looked a furtive apology at the unlistening audience of his fellow passengers.
“When planters talk to each other when they’re in the bush, “fuck” is like the capital letter, comma and period of every sentence. Hence, for example, “Fuck, when do you think the fucking rollie’s going to get here, fuck,” or ‘Fuck, I can’t wait for fucking dinner tonight, fuck the fucking cook told me we’re having fucking meatballs, fuck.’”
“But, granting for the moment that, uh, ‘planters’ really do speak in such a shocking, a shocking manner, surely this language, all of this profanity is being used to provoke some kind of response, rather than for the purposes of genuine communication. It sounds rather, well, petulant, rather puerile to me, to force that kind of language on people just to shock them.”
“Forgive me professor, but their speech isn’t directed at people like you, and certainly isn’t meant to be written down and formally assessed. It is neither intended to be nor is it in fact in any way shocking to planters. After a while you don’t even hear the “fuck” anymore, any more than you might remark a glottal touch or the standard pauses we insert in our speech like “er” or “uh” or whatever. You might say that after a while the fucks become such a normal part of life they become invisible.”
“I just can’t believe that it - that - that “fuck” can just become part of a language like that,” replied the incredulous Clark bravely.
Janson’s eyes softened and withdrew from the professor somewhat, now expressing a mixture of his earlier sadness along with a sort of aggressive resignation. “Forgive me, professor,” he replied, adopting something closer to the tone of a lawyer, “but if you’re not going to believe me because what I say doesn’t match what you already believe, if you’re going to reject my representations of the world as provocative fictions, then little purpose will be served in the two of us continuing our conversation, nor, if I may, will any purpose be served in your continuing on with your project at all.”
“But, Mr. Janson, I assure you I did not mean to imply that you were lying, I was merely - “
“I think, sir, that rather than meaning anything, what you were doing was simply taking an opportunity to - “
“Look, young man,” replied Clark, quite honestly apologetic, “I’m honestly very sorry if I gave you any offense. I - “
“Taking offense is the first defense of a man with no argument. I did not take offense, I was in fact trying to show you that - “
“Please,” replied Clark earnestly, and now somewhat confused about the subject of their conflict, “I truly wish to hear your story. I will promise to put myself more in the role of the anthropologist - I am not accustomed, as you know, to actually hearing people tell me their own stories, what I do is - well, you will have to forgive me if I let my inner voice come out as though no one were listening, as though there were no one’s feelings - “
At this Janson threw back his head and laughed, clapping the professor on the knee. “Well said, professor, and I must admit that I am far more guilty of that particular sin than I suspect you are yourself. Shall I continue with my story? I’ll try to keep my voice down when what I’m saying may be a violation of our presumed cultural airline propriety.”
“That would be excellent, young man, excellent,” replied Clark, truly relieved. “You were saying, about this poor girl….”
“Yeah - ok, so anyway, after the tent thing and being late, now she was doubly humiliated and what’s worse, at this point, none of the veterans were inclined to help her out with any little observations or show her any sympathy, and they treated her like she was already gone, not worth wasting time getting to know, and all the rookies saw this and since they wanted to impress the veterans, they reacted with similar disapprobation. So anyway she of course notices or at least senses all of this and I guess in the way people who believe others suspect them of incompetence seem to be driven by their self-consciousness to make more and more mistakes, more and more things kept going wrong for her. I’m not sure I can remember all the details of Shaun’s story, but half way to the block she actually fell off the back of the rollagon somehow - “
“No! But how could something like that happen?”
“Well when you’re planting people don’t generally follow health and safety rules, in fact the whole idea that you should treat the bush like it’s a regulated space and your work like it’s a regulated activity feels to your average planter a lot like the army so people kind of naturally do whatever and you can get situations where for example you have planters sitting on top of boxes of trees in the bed of a moving truck - “
“Boxes of trees?”
“Yeah, the trees or seedlings that you plant come in cardboard boxes and you need to get them to the block one way or another. Anyways I’ve seen entire crews cram into the bed of a truck on top of all sorts of shit, clinging to the sides, sometimes even with the tailgate down, and then speeding down or up muddy cut lines trying to get to or from wherever the fuck - “
“That sounds very dangerous!”
“Yeah, so I imagine something like that was happening when this girl fell off the rollie. So, of course she’s got some kind of bump or bruise and to her further embarrassment and the general ill-will of everyone they have to shout to the rollie driver to stop, and he stops and gets out furious and shouts at the girl for being a fucking idiot while she sort of hobbles back to the truck. Now that was shitty enough, but even worse, when she fell off her water container fell off with her and broke open - “
“Yeah when you go out to the block every day you have to bring your own water with you. If you lose it like this girl did, it doesn’t just mean a thirsty day, it means potential dehydration which is pretty bad in the middle of buttfuck nowhere, and/or it means you have to borrow from somebody else’s limited water supply. The main point of all this is that in the bush when you’re working you realize that the foundation of everything is always already you - if you don’t take care of yourself you are confronted with the fact that it’s not your or indignation or magic little elves or historical forces or some system that takes up your slack, it’s other people - “
“Yes, well, and so, this poor girl….”
“Anyway, so the girl gets back on the rollagon, waterless and friendless and probably feeling like a buck fifty-two at this point - “
“A buck fifty-two? I don’t - “
“As opposed to feeling like a million bucks. Anyways so they finally make it to the block and get off the rollie, unload the trees and get ready to plant or in the case of the rookies get ready to learn how to plant. I guess things at that point went as well as they could for the girl but learning how to plant is pretty tough especially when you realize that once you’ve learned how to plant the whole thing just gets harder because then you understand how hard the job really is. So that may have had her down in the middle of the day when she stopped to eat lunch, of course by herself since no one would talk to her - and so I guess she went off into the bush past the treeline a bit and she gets approached by a big moose - “
“A moose!” replied Clark, his eyes gazing with happy wonder into the middle distance, envisioning the gentle, majestic animal in a leafy glade, encountering the unhappy girl. “What a remarkable event, what an exceptional, if I may, omen, to encounter a real Canadian moose in the Canadian wild….”
Janson laughed. “Well if it was an omen it was more of the Gregory Peck kind because this moose was fucking pissed. I’m not sure exactly what happened but it freaked the hell out of her and she started to run back to the block and the moose chased her until she tripped and fell down in a slash pile, then it ran over her, luckily missing her with its heavy fucking hoofs, then turned and, according to the other planters, looked right at her with a moose version of an angry glare and then roared at her or whatever mooses do, and then dug at the ground with its huge antlers or whatever and then roared again and ran off into the bush, leaving the girl behind shaking on the ground.”
Clark was shocked. “But I’ve always thought that moose were such mild, gentle creatures, a symbol of our - “
“You ever seen a real one?”
Clark immediately adopted a rather irate expression and opened his mouth to reply that of course he had seen a real moose, but upon reflection, he realized that, although he felt a strong sense of familiarity with the iconic animal, he had, in fact, never seen a real one, only representations of them. “Well, you know, come to think of it, I suppose I haven’t,” he said somewhat aggressively, as though Janson, for having asked the question, were somehow to blame for the truth, and followed up by pointing out that the plural of moose is not mooses but moose.
“I know,” replied Janson smiling, “I was just being funny. So anyway now the girl’s thirsty and a bit scraped and bruised from the chase and the fall and like quintupally humiliated.
“And then she did what a lot of first-week planters do: she gave up. It’s sort of hard to explain how difficult it is for some people. It’s not just the really hard work, the danger, the uncertainty, all the fucking snafus and strangers that really gets people down, I think, that really shuts them down; it’s not even the fact that there’s no TV or phone or whatever; it’s the reality that they know all day long that when they go to bed at night there’s no bathroom, there’s no light switch, there’s no bed, no blankets. There’s no apparatus to do the work for you that you need, whether it’s technology or other people or the police or the department of making things right and fair or anything.”
“And this girl was one of those, I suppose, who need - “
“Actually the way Shaun told the story he didn’t leap to any kind of judgment like that. What he said was she actually seemed like she was pretty tough - even getting out there and giving it a shot is a sign of something - but that she just had such a terrible day she may have just decided that fate or whatever was against her and she should just accept the signs from nature that she was meant to be doing something else.”
“So what happened to her?”
“Well she just sat there on that slash pile for the rest of the day, pretty much ignored except for when a couple of curious or sympathetic planters realized she really had sat down there for the long term, and when she said she was done doing this shit her foreman came over and tried to pep-talk her but to no avail. Then she spent the next couple of days waiting around in camp while everyone else went planting, I think they maybe gave her some work to do to cover her camp costs, waiting for the day when someone would be heading into town for something, and finally it happened and off she went.
“So, anyway, there we were sitting around the table at this pizza shop in Jasper, and Shaun and some of the veterans spent the next hour or so telling more horror stories like that and laughing their asses off, like about the time one of them took too much speed on the job and just ran around all day but didn’t get all that much planting done, and how another time another guy smoked way too much weed and spent like an hour planting one tree, and me and all the other new rookie planters were sitting there just trying to look brave and absorb it all, but maybe I’m projecting that last part - I was soaking it all up like a sponge that had been raised in a desert and was getting its first taste of water. I wasn’t the least bit self-conscious about any of this either - I was just totally absorbed in the stories, in the way they were told, in the beer I bought, in the stories about drugs, and of course trying not to look at the beautiful girl, whose name I later learned was Alabama - “
Janson turned to stare out of the window, where the morning sun was beaming sharply above the clouds, which were taking on something like the appearance of a corduroy road, thought Clark.
“And were drugs such a prominent part of treeplanting?” Clark asked, lowering his voice slightly and casting his eyes about in a vaguely nervous manner.
“Well, yes and no. So anyway I spent that night sleeping on the floor in this motel room with three other people on the floor and four others sharing the two double beds - I think that night we divvied up the sleeping spaces by just drawing straws or something, for real - and the next morning, very early on, I was back in the van with Grandpa and fat Sidney and dopey Jeff and the still creepy diminutive Price Vincent. Somehow, after only one minor breakdown, we made it to PG by the early afternoon in that old deathtrap.
“When we got there we had to ask directions a few times to find the office and the old house owned by this treeplanting company where we were supposed to meet up with everyone else on our crew. Predictably we were the last people to show up - between Grandpa and Jeff’s kind of kind but paranoid incompetence and Sidney’s oafish and totally unmerited self-confidence, based explicitly on his fabled farm boy’s sense of direction, and the whiny, bitter whingeing that came from Price Vincent, and between my natural ignorance of PG and my enjoyment of every observation and every situation regardless of its outcome, we were pretty lucky to make it there at all. The main thing I remember about driving into PG was how stunning the surroundings were, not only in themselves in that springtime but also in their promise for summer and fall and winter beauty - “
“Well put, very well put,” replied Clark, noting down that phrase carefully and shaking his hand to loosen the stiffening joints. “And was the town as beautiful as its surroundings?”
“Well I loved everything about it but at that point I was so taken with my adventure that I would have loved a hole in the ground. The other thing I remember of course is the smell - PG’s a mill town and you can smell the stink everywhere, until you get used to it, when it kind of disappears.
“So anyway we got to the company office and parked outside in the sharp sunlight and Shaun immediately came out of the office up to the van and told us to get the fuck inside right away, the big start-of-season meeting with the boss was starting inside in five minutes and we needed to sign some papers first. We hopped right to it and followed him inside and then I remember this big skinny pale straggly blonde haired grubby jean jacket liquor store type guy, who wasn’t introduced to me but I later learned was the lead crew supervisor for the company, came up to us and handed us these papers and pens and told us to sign and get into the back of the building “right fucking away”.
“We were a little taken aback and confused, as nothing had been explained to us, and we all sort of just looked at him and at the papers and shuffled around for a few seconds, until the supervisor looked at Shaun and said something like:
‘Fuck what the fuck kind of god-damn retards you fucking brought along with you Shaun, fuck?’
“Then he turned back to us and said:
‘Fuck you ain’t fucking signed yet fuck?’
“A little nervous now, I quickly read the papers - the other guys seemed to be following my lead on this for some reason - and saw that we were signing legal employment papers, including some for the WCB - “
“The Workers’ Compensation Board of BC. We needed to sign these papers to confirm that we’d taken a couple of safety courses and watched a bear video and such. Well, of course we hadn’t and I naively pointed that out to jean jacket, who looked at me like I was the dumbest guy he’d ever met, and of course I was behaving, maybe not stupidly, but, yeah, extremely naively.
‘Fuck, you want a fucking job, you sign the fucking papers, all of you fucks,’ he said, staring us down in turn, “or get out that fucking door and don’t ever come the fuck back, fuck.’
“I took a moment to consider the situation and although I honestly was afraid because I felt like I was doing something illegal by saying I had seen and done things I hadn’t, I just chose to take the risk and sign. The other guys did likewise, jean jacket grabbed the papers and muttered a few more fucks before he took off to somewhere in the back of the office, and Shaun, a little embarrassed, motioned for us to follow him through a door into the sort of warehouse or back room where the big meeting was happening.”
“Pardon me, but before you continue,” interjected Clark, going back a page in his rapidly filling notebook, “but what is a ‘bear video’?”
“Ha, yeah, that’s a pretty funny thing actually. One of the things I picked up on over the next few years when I came back to plant was that every year the useless idiots over at the WCB seemed to feel it was their duty to come out with a new bear safety video. The purpose of the videos is to help you keep safe in the event that you encounter a bear. Heaven forfend that they actually give you some stats or whatever, which would show not only that almost no planters ever get attacked by bears but also that the bear videos weren’t really necessary. Anyways, the funniest thing about the videos, besides the classically Canadian poor production value, was the fact that every year they said something different. One year the main thing would be “play dead”, the next year it would be “make noise and wave your arms”, the next year it would be more about protecting the bears than protecting the planters, which was pretty rich coming from the WCB, and then the next year the best advice would be to back off slowly and talk softly to - “
“Surely these changes reflected changes in the latest scientific -“
“Most likely the changes represented a need to show progress so the WCB people could advance their careers, or maybe a disinclination to cut an unnecessary service because that would diminish their departmental budget.”
“But what should you do when you see a bear in the woods?”
“In my experience? The most reasonable and reasonably repeated advice I’ve heard goes something like this: first and last, whatever you do, don’t run away. If it’s a black bear, wave your arms and make a shitload of noise and walk in its general direction at an angle away from it, keeping your head and your eyes down. If you meet a brown bear, you’re kind of fucked, so just use your judgment, though I know one guy who encountered one when he was walking alone in the bush after quitting right there on the block and walking back to camp, which was a really stupid thing to do but totally understandable if you knew the details of how his foreman fucked him - anyways this big brown bear walked up to him and sat down to look at him, and this guy just sang to it until it got up and ambled away.”
“Really! Bears do that?”
“Mostly we’re objects of curiosity to them, and sometimes fear, at least that’s what I think. I imagine when we’re planting the bears just sit inside the treeline looking out at us and wondering what the he’ll we’re doing, with weird white bulbs on our backs - the bags we keep the trees in - and bending over every few feet to stick our longer arm, the one with the shovel, in the ground….”
“And what are you supposed to do if you encounter a grizzly?”
“If you encounter a grizzly, what happens is up to the grizzly.”
“Did you ever encounter one?”
“Once, a couple of years later. Shaun and I were driving in his truck down a logging road back to camp and suddenly this grizzly came out of the bush ahead of us. We stopped for a look and then saw it was a big mama with a couple of cubs, so we started to move away rather than bother it further, when she just got up on her hind legs and let out this huge roar and came after the truck full speed. We had to get the speedometer above sixty k before we started to pull ahead of her, and we could hear her roaring over the stereo, even with the windows closed.
“So, anyway, me and Grandpa and Sidney and Jeff and Price Vincent followed Shaun into the back room and found it was kind of like a warehouse with a bunch of planters, like eighty or so in all shapes and sizes, mostly young but one or three old like trapper types, sitting on the concrete floor and facing a big corrugated steel garage door in the back. There were makeshift wooden shelves along the walls, all the way up to the ceiling, covered with all sorts of used and broken equipment - rusty old pickaxes - “
“Pickaxes?” our hero interjected with some surprise, now gazing out the window into his rich imagination. “Perhaps,” the professor mused, “perhaps they were left over from the days when there was a great gold rush in the Rockies, the remnants of an older, more enterprising age, when men would dig into the earth in search of their future, in this unforgiving but promising land….”
“Well I guess anything is possible. The pickaxes, I later learned, along with the rusty wooden-handled spades and regular axes which were also stacked along some of the shelves, were going to be doled out to every crew for firefighting.”
“Yeah every crew when it goes out into the bush up north has to have some firefighting equipment like that. I never got final word on this from any authority but the word on the playground - “
“The - oh, yes.”
“Yeah, word on the playground was that if a fire started up north near where you were planting your whole crew could be conscripted, actually legally conscripted, to fight the fire, and so you might need to have some firefighting equipment at hand, and in any case if a fire started near you you wanted to be able to put it out somehow. So we always had to lug around all this rusty old shit wherever we went. The stories about firefighting up in the bush were pretty cool and pretty scary at the same time. Mostly when we encountered fire crews they were made up of tired-looking native guys in dirty red coveralls in dusty trucks and such. Sad part was there were always rumours in the towns amongst the white people that the native guys, if there weren’t enough fires to supply enough work for all of them for the summer, would make sure there was enough work one way or another - “
“Didn’t that strike you as rather - racist?” interjected Clark seriously, tilting his head back and arching his eyebrows.
“Asking me that question definitely strikes me as patronizing. Are you calling me racist for reporting the opinions - “
“But your voice, the way you said it, I couldn’t tell, it didn’t signal any disapproval, so naturally I assumed - “
“Jesus Christ, fucking Canadians,” said Janson under his breath, looking out the window again, and off into the distance. “No wonder I had to fucking leave to do any serious work.” He took a deep breath and turned back to Clark. “No, not naturally you assumed, but characteristically you took the opportunity to call me racist when the opportunity presented itself. I understand that even by objecting to what you’ve done, in Canadian discourse I will be implicating myself with what you were accusing me of, but Jesus god-damn - “ Janson clenched his fists on the armrests, the healthy veins visible on his planter’s arms, and turned away to look out the window again before he returned his penetrating gaze to Clark. “If you want to talk to someone who sneers every time they describe something they disagree with, well you’re going to be talking with people who confuse moral recrimination with research, and on your project here, you - “
“Well really now, there’s no reason to - “
“The problem is that you’re not interested at all in the vast steamy jungle of meanings you could find in my story. What you’re interested in doing is passing moral judgment on my character. In fact, that’s all you’re really interested in doing. You’ve substituted all the wonders of interpretation, of which moral judgment is just one of a multitude, for a puritanical inquisition, a narrow minded exercise in bible-thumping finger-pointing, and success is when you find a way to pin the scarlet letter on me. Well you know what? You’re a professor, not a priest, and you have no moral authority to “
“I assure you I - “
“You want me to tell this story - you want me to talk in the language of day-to-day life, and report what people say - but everything I say might be used to say I’m evil, so I’m supposed to hedge everything I say to protect myself against - you want me to self-censor in accordance with your own pronouncements, your shifting diktats, to subject myself to the hegemony of arbitrary, unwritten bans….” Here Janson paused, noticing the rather frightened but mostly confused look on the face of our hero, who was unused to such assaults on his authority, and his professional principles. “Ok, look, why don’t we move on and you think the situation over, it’s pretty important for your project here. You go out into the world and people talk like they fucking talk, and let me tell you they don’t police each other for language crimes like a bunch of crazy twisted born-agains who point out every sin - “
At this, Clark regained his composure and countered: “Well young man, now who’s being patronizing? Certainly you can’t be comparing - “
“You started it and that’s another one you might want to think about. So - anyways one thing I heard about was these heli-attack firefighters, real tough motherfuckers who have to go through this like Navy Seal-style training camp where you tie off one rappelling knot wrong in practice and you’re kicked out. Anyway, after a few weeks of intense training these guys then get put in choppers and just dropped in the middle of the bush to fight fires. No fucking shit. Planting’s pretty tough but nothing like that.”
“Did you ever have to fight fires when your were treeplanting?”
“No, though that jean jacket supervisor asshole one time he was throwing shit out of a rollagon at us when were setting up camp and he threw a big old metal firefighting water can on my head.”
“That must have hurt! Were you able to continue working?”
“Well I wouldn’t exactly call it working since we didn’t get paid for setting up camp. Well - back to my story - so we sat down with all the other planters in that big garage behind the office, facing the owner who was standing facing us, with her back to the old corrugated garage door. She was the toughest, bitterest, meanest, sour-faced old chain-smoking bitch I’ve ever seen, and she was just getting going with her speech - “
“Uh,” said Clark, who had noted down Janson’s words with some trepidation, wondering if he would ever be allowed to print such improper words, even in the name of research, of accurate anthropology, “ - and what was she saying?”
“I think there wasn’t really much of a reason for the speech besides to let us know she was not one to be fucked with, and I guarantee you we got the message. She told us that they didn’t tolerate low-number planters and anyone who didn’t plant well enough would be told fuck you and fired. She told us that anyone who planted low-quality trees would get fired and told in no uncertain terms to fuck right off if they complained. Later I would learn what that really meant. And then she told us they’d be on the lookout for overcounting all season long and anyone caught doing it would get charged for every tree they overcounted. Later I would learn what that really meant too - “
“I’m sorry, what’s ‘overcounting’? And what did she mean in both cases? For the record?”
“In the first case, with respect to quality - basically when a planting company wants to fire somebody, maybe because they feel they overhired or whatever, or maybe because they just don’t like the planter’s personality, they’ll get the checkers to find ways to pin the charge of poor planting on said sad planter. Like they might try and make it look to whoever they’ve got the planting contract from that all the bad planting that’s been reported so far is the fault of one planter or two, and say they’ve taken care of their quality problem by firing the guilty planter. And with overcounting - OK - at the end of every day planters tell their foreman how many trees they planted, and since they get paid for the number of trees they’ve planted, they sometimes claim they’ve planted more than they really have.”
“But how can the foreman know if they’re telling the truth or lying?”
“There’s usually no way to know for sure. Planters don’t usually get allocated specific boxes of trees - each of which will have the same number of trees in them, as long as they’re the same type of tree from the same grower - “
“Wait - you plant different types of trees?”
“Yeah, but maybe I should get to that later?”
“Yes, please continue,” Clark said, trying to be encouraging.
“OK. Planters don’t get their own tree boxes - usually the boxes are left by the foreman in caches, covered by tarps on the corner boundaries of a piece - each planter is allocated their own “piece” of land to plant - so, these caches are placed so they can be used by more than one planter. If your foreman really fucking hates you he can make you wait for trees by not replenishing your cache fast enough or by making you walk for your trees, which is a real piss off - there are a million ways foremen have for punishing planters they don’t like, and walking for trees is like one of the worst things…”
“Uh, you were saying?”
“OK, yeah, overcounting. So anyway there’s always overcounting, since even if you’re honest, if you’re unsure how many trees you’ve planted at the end of the day you don’t exactly lowball yourself. And though a good foreman can usually tell if someone’s overcounting - by watching the amount of trees he leaves at a group’s cache and how much they claim they’ve planted, or by watching a planter who seems slow but claims he’s planted as much as a faster planter, or if he’s been given a small piece and claims to have planted more trees than should have fit in that piece - but anyway that’s all pretty haphazard and none of it involves hard proof. Which means that at the end of the season, or the end of any contract within a season, there’s always quite a few overcounted trees, which the planting company is on the hook to pay the planters for. The company doesn’t want to pay for them of course and the only way they can avoid doing that is to blame planters for the overcounting and dock their pay. The easiest way to do that is to catch one guy red-handed and then pin all the overcounting on him, so you dock his pay - basically to zero, since he’s the goat for the whole contract’s worth of overcounting, for all the overcounters on all the crews involved - and he goes home after all that shitty work empty-handed. And since it’s basically just the company’s word against yours, they can pin this on pretty much anybody - another threat used to keep planters in line.”
“Are there any other ways of cheating?” asked Clark, somewhat shocked at these descriptions of dishonesty and manipulation on all side - and in an environmental activity at that!
“Yeah the main one is burying trees.”
“It’s one of the ways of cheating that’s hardest to understand. I mean, to really bury enough trees to make it worthwhile, some people will actually take an entire box of trees off into the bush and dig a hole. But to do it properly takes about as much time as it takes to plant a box worth of trees anyway. And it’s easier to get caught than people think, I mean you have to leave your piece for the whole time and walk into and out of the bush and any of these things can be noticed.
“Well, anyway, so then the owner moved on in her speech to tell us that if we didn’t like any of what she was doing we could fucking shove it. She said that we were all going to have to pay union dues - “
“There was a treeplanting union? The way you described it I thought - “
“I’m sure you thought right. No, there was no treeplanting union, but the planting company had contracts that year with logging companies that had unions. The way it worked, that craggy old crook told us, was that the logging union wouldn’t let their companies contract out work to any workers who weren’t in their union. So that meant that all of us planters had to join the logging union if we wanted to put back in the ground what they took out. And that, of course, meant paying union dues.”
“I see - so you would have some protection against the depredations of the planting company after all.”
“You would have thought so but it turned out the main purpose of this talk was to disabuse us of any hope on that front. The union, which insisted that we pay it monthly dues from our labour, also had a rule that you couldn’t actually be a real member with any rights until you’d paid your dues for just over four months. Guess how long the full planting seasons, spring and summer, add up to each year?”
“Just under four months?”
“Precisely. Then the owner, just to take away any lingering hope we might be harbouring that we could get some use out of the union anyway, the owner tells us that she made a deal with the union reps that if any of us complained to them they’d use that four month clause as an excuse to ignore us.”
“But surely all that was quite illegal!”
“The union got what it wanted - our money - and the company got what it wanted - a promise the union would look the other way. Sure it was illegal, but even if we really wanted to do something, well, planters aren’t exactly the type to run to the cops or whatever when things don’t go their way.”
“And did you think of leaving? Of going home?”
“Not for a single solitary second. And besides, shortly after I sat down I realized Alabama was sitting just in front of me. Just being in her presence like that filled me with - it made the air electric, it made the moment - intense, I suppose, is maybe the best word. I noticed every movement, I noticed everything going on around me, everything was - heightened. I was totally overcome by my - well - and also in the manner of young men it was perhaps all the more captivating because I had never actually spoken to the girl yet and was nothing to her. And then she stretched, just a casual thing that people do all the time, but when she did it I felt like all the universe was stretching like a - like a lioness in heat - “
“You are a romantic!”
Janson blushed slightly and began contemplating his shoes. “Yes, I am most definitely a romantic.”
Clark, who was exceptionally sensitive to other people’s feelings, knew that he had set the young man’s mind down another obviously habitual path of contemplation, but one marked more by sadness and introspection than biliousness and irascibility. “I’m sorry if I - “
“That stretch, it sounds like an exaggeration, but it changed the universe for me, it changed my relationship to being, it changed me fundamentally. I suppose a psychoanalyst might say it was the moment I became sexualized or something. So - needless to say that Alabama was reason enough for me to stay, but as I said before I saw everything that happened, positive or negative, as contributing to the meaning and nature of this adventure, and all of this just encouraged me to stay with growing excitement.
“So, um - the owner went over a few more details regarding the company and the forthcoming spring season of planting and set us on our way. Shaun collected our crew in a corner and told us that we all needed to go buy our gear and then head out to a place called Nazko Station, where we would meet up before heading out to the planting camp, which was pretty deep in the bush. I got back in the van with Grandpa and the others and we followed someone else in the crew who had a car to this camping store that catered to planters. I had no idea what I needed - I’d brought with me a tent and a sleeping bag and a bunch of old family camping equipment, you know the kind you find in the basement in a pile of old junk that smells like Canadian Tire - “
“Excellent, an excellent observation, a great expression,” replied the excited Clark, carefully noting down the phrase. “It is an experience that is quintessentially Canadian - our great though unofficial natural - I mean national scent - “
Clark stopped himself, realizing that such an observation was likely to trigger a rant from the young man, but this time Janson appeared not to have heard him, having only turned his softened gaze again to the window, and out into the distant heights over the clouds.
“For some reason I remember every detail of that summer, every line and every moment, every little thing, as though every moment shone, as though I were somehow…. I even remember the face of the fat, bespectacled, very pleased owner of the camping store in PG, where we went to buy our gear, when he was walking up and down the cluttered aisles handing out free cans of warm no-name Coke to the planters. I had no idea what I needed and the owner and his staff and the veteran planters helped us all out - the owner and staff of course trying to encourage us to buy the most expensive and widest variety of stuff, and the veterans pointing out the deals and what was really necessary.”
“And as this is a record of Canadian life,” Clark said carefully, enjoying his growing sense of his role as investigative anthropologist, “perhaps you could tell me what you bought and its function in your ensuing labour - I assure you it is very important information, in a historico-materialist sense, to have an understanding, a description of the day-to-day, the peasant’s shoes in detail you know, uh and of course on the level of culture, poetically, the listing of a warrior’s accoutrements has precedents as great and ancient as the Homeric - “
“On their advice the most important item a rookie had to buy was his shovel. We would be plunging them into the ground thousands of times a day, we would be carrying them with us everywhere, their loss catastrophic - almost everything else could be improvised, but a shovel could not, and without it, you could plant nothing. There were tall staff handled shovels - I remember I saw Alabama buy one - that were supposed to be useful as walking staffs when you were going up and down steep ravines and such, and that were supposed to stave off tendonitis, since the force of the thrust into the earth would be dissipated and not brought up into the arm as it would be with the shorter D-handled shovels. The drawback, a veteran explained to me, was that unless you got really good with a staff shovel, you’d probably plant less trees than you would with a D-handle. For no particular reason, maybe just because I had seen that most veterans used them, I bought a D-handled shovel, one that came up about to my waist, with a plastic handle in the shape of a D attached to a wooden shaft, with a narrow spade blade at the bottom, which I had some guy in the back sharpen along with the shovels of the veterans.”
“Sharpening shovels! That’s rather like sharpening skates, a - “
Janson held out his right hand for Clark to inspect. “See this?” He made a fist and then, as he gently unclasped his fingers, his middle finger stayed locked in a closed position, until it eventually snapped out and extended with a click. “My middle finger locks in place when I close my hand into a fist. I think it’s some kind of bump on my tendon or something. I guess I’ll have that reminder of my work in my body for the rest of my life, all from that shovel. When you’re planting you can even get something we called “The Claw”, where even when you’re not holding a shovel your hand is naturally stuck in a sort of grasping position. Anyway I bought my shovel and later, like many other planters, I would write various phrases with a marker on it and my other equipment - “
“Wonderful! As I was saying, in the ancient literary traditions, and even in our current traditional literary traditions - I mean in traditional societies - but please go on.”
“Next on the agenda of necessary items was a set of planting bags. These have straps that go over your shoulder and three sort of bucket-shaped canvas bags with strings for closing them that go around your waist. We also had to buy these liners for the bags called silvisacs, that had reflective lining on the inside, reportedly to keep the trees cool and moist between the time we took them out of their boxes and put them in our bags and then planted them. And of course we had to buy a couple rolls each of bright ribboning tape, which was used to mark the boundaries of the piece of the cut block you were planting, amongst other things, and anyway had a million uses. It was also suggested that we buy gloves, usually these generic yellow plastic gardening gloves with a sort of sticky grip, which we were supposed to wear when we were planting. The reason was partly to protect our hands from rocks in the earth when we planted the trees, and from mosquitoes and getting blisters and scrapes and cuts and such, but most importantly to protect our hands from the pesticides the trees were supposed to be covered in. Funny thing, I haven’t thought about this in years, but a funny thing is you would get what we called “planter tan” from those gloves, where if you were wearing a t-shirt when you were planting you’d have your tan or burn extending from above your elbows to only three-quarters of the way down your forearm, and the rest would be almost totally untanned, so you’d have tanned forearms but untanned hands.
“Those were the key things we had to buy, but there were lots of other necessities - water containers, rain equipment, tarps for putting under the tent if you needed them, hats, mosquito repellent - that was always controversial - “
“Yes, well, dealing with mosquitoes is a huge part of planting and there are basically two camps in the debate - Deet versus natural products - about how best to deal with them. Every year there’d be a new fad amongst those who favoured natural products and methods for keeping mosquitoes away - lemon juice, eating or not eating bananas, whatever.”
“And what was your opinion about how to handle mosquitoes, the uh, the great and ancient bane of the Canadian forests?”
“Well, ok, first, there’s a spectrum of mosquito attractiveness, and every individual falls along it somewhere, from highly attractive to, well, I suppose perhaps even repulsive, and what works for you depends on where you fall along the spectrum. The main mistake people make in the debate - as is true in so many debates about far weightier matters - is being captivated by the idea that there’s only one right position, a belief grounded in the deeper belief that all people are essentially the same, that there is no other. The point is that different people need different solutions. I made a few attempts to try natural repellent but none worked for me: one time when I was trying some lemon salve or something I once counted a hundred mosquito bites on the back of one hand by the end of a single day, no kidding, and I’d managed to get them even though I’d worn gloves for most of the working day. The best mosquito protection for anyone is to stand next to me. So for me I needed the strongest stuff available, which meant Muskol with the highest level of Deet I could get.”
“Ah, yes,” replied Clark, noting down the name worriedly, his honest brow furrowing. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to, uh report the brand names in my, uh, report - I know what you’re saying is the way you speak about such things in day-to-day life but I - we would certainly want to avoid - we don’t want it to seem like a product placement - “
“Seriously, I’m telling you this story, explaining what you call the material conditions of a unique form of labour, and that’s what you’re thinking about, I mean - anyways, other people, though,” Janson continued, as he stared solemnly at the back of his right hand, absent-mindedly rubbing the long-faded bites with the fingers of his left, “just naturally have no need of any repellent at all since mosquitoes just stay away from them. Funny thing that. It’s sort of hard to read. Does it mean, if mosquitoes don’t bite you, that the bush is inviting you in and showing you kindness, or does it mean that the bush doesn’t want to take up your blood into its body, and that not biting you is the deepest sort of rejection? That blood after all will circulate through the mosquitoes into the birds and eventually all the way around the forest until a decomposing bear is turned into a tree… “
Clark found himself staring at the young man’s downcast face, a concerned look coming over his fatherly countenance, but he kept silent.
“Um - but I was also told that the most important thing we needed to buy was duct tape, and I followed a veteran’s instructions and bought two big rolls of it. I needed all of it that first week. When you’re out in the bush you don’t have access to any stores or anything and you can only be so prepared for contingencies, for things you need breaking or for new needs appearing, and duct tape sort of functions as a makeshift hardware store all unto itself. If your bags ripped, you fixed them with duct tape; if your pants ripped, you fixed them with duct tape; if you wanted to plant barehand, you used elaborate methods to tape up your hands so you wouldn’t get cut on the rocks as you thrust your hand into the hole you made in the earth with your shovel; if your tent ripped, if anything broke, if you cut yourself, duct tape could almost always be used in one way or another to solve the problem, at least for a time.
“Well, anyway, once we were kitted out we -“
“‘Kitted out?’ Is that a BC phrase? It sounds rather -“
“Sorry, that’s something I inadvertently picked up in England. Anyway I got back in the van with Grandpa and the gang - I remember we had to lend Jeff money for his gear, the poor stoner was totally broke, and though it felt a bit weird lending money to a stranger I actually enjoyed the act, though of course we were all the kinds of types for whom even fifty bucks was a lot of money - anyway we drove all the way to this Nazko Station, way out in the bush, or so it seemed to me anyway, and it was just a collection of funny makeshift practical buildings between the trees and the highway. One place was a big old diner slash gas station, where we were meeting up with everyone else before we went out into the bush proper in order to set up our tent camp.
“Inside, the place was typical of such places, bars in the north and in the bush I mean, but I didn’t know it at the time, since it was the first one I’d ever seen. It was like it was from another place but no place - if you haven’t been to a place like that, well you won’t know what I mean - sort of sparse and dark and warm at the same time, with cheap chairs and tables and a jukebox and such. I remember the place had a sort of reddish light and that there were bills - one dollar, two dollars, five dollars, all kinds, taped all over the wall behind the bar, and they only sold generic beer in bottles - for seven dollars a bottle, which was like twice the going rate in a city or even a town bar at the time. There were a bunch of sort of rough but pushover looking locals around - you know the kind who are obviously alcoholics who haven’t eaten a vegetable for years - they were looking at us from under their tractor hats or whatever they had on with that friendly and suspicious direct look of people who work and live in places like that, directing a contradictory sort of contempt and curiosity at strangers. Me and the guys saw the rest of our crew sitting around a table in the corner and went up to them.
“When we sat down Shaun got down to business and described how we were going to be driving to the camp down some logging roads and it was important that those of us in the rest of the trucks and vans and cars behind him stick close together, and that if he pulls over we pull over - “
“Why was it so important to pull over if he pulled over?”
“Well I didn’t know either and was pretty curious so I decided I wanted to ride along with Shaun to find out. The thing about logging roads is that they’re usually pretty narrow, just big enough for one logging truck to go up and down, and they’re not paved and sometimes in bad condition and really up and down and windy, and people who are used to driving on them barrel down them as fast as they can go. So in order to avoid accidents - which do happen pretty frequently anyway, especially if people are drinking, which they do pretty frequently - a guy in front of a group of vehicles or driving on his own has to have a radio and he has to call out the kilometre markers on the CB - “
“How does he know what, uh frequency to “call out” the uh….” asked Clark, trailing off and, we must admit, feeling a little out of his depth in the midst of Janson’s manual labour manner and vocabulary.
“I wondered the same thing and was told that if you look for it at the entrance to a logging road there’ll be a sign that says what frequency you should set your CB to. Anyway so the guy with the CB has to check for the yellow kilometre marker signs that are set up at every kilometre along the road and are used for navigating since there’s nothing else to go by, and what he calls out is not just “42” say if he’s at the 42 kilometre marker, since that doesn’t tell you which way he’s going - “
“So what - “
“So he calls out “42 empty” or “42 loaded” - “empty” if you’re going up the logging road from the highway, and “loaded” if you’re going down the logging road back towards the highway - “
“Is that,” asked Clark a little nervously, his pen poised humbly to note down the answer should he be in error, “because a logging truck going up the road to pick up trees will be empty, and one that has already picked up its load will be - “
Janson smiled. “Exactly, professor, that’s exactly it.
“Anyways I was curious about this CB thing so I went up to Shaun and asked if I could ride with him on the way to the camp. He said sure and brought me over to what would be our main crew vehicle for the season, one we’d all get to know very well, taking it with us to towns and camps from Golden to Fort St. John. We’d sit in there hotboxing and taking shelter from rain and snow and hail, we’d discover a smell like Kentucky Fried Chicken that stayed in the van for a week before we discovered a muskrat had crawled up and died in the engine where its body was cooking whenever we drove, we’d get stuck in that shitty van on muddy logging roads and cut lines and have to push and dig her out, and we’d even, one day when we had days off, we’d fear she’d been used to run over some teenagers - but I’ll tell that part later. The van, which Shaun had picked up at the company offices in PG, already had a name - Brown Betty. Shaun even got laid in the back of that old beater…”
The rather anxious Clark allowed Janson to trail off and turn away as he lapsed into another silent reverie, the professor taking the opportunity not to interrupt for clarification, but rather to go over his notes and mark places which would require further research and careful consideration. What indeed was this “hotboxing” the young man had mentioned in passing? Was it sexist - or perhaps even racist - that the van was called Brown Betty, and would his publishers prevent him from using the name? And if they didn’t, if they let him tell the story the way it was told to him, perhaps he himself would be accused of committing those crimes, by perpetuating them in print?
After all, he mused, texts do not just reflect reality directly and transparently; that naive assumption had been banished from literary scholarship in the early 20th century, ever since the radical revelations of de Saussure, and his invention of the philosophy of language, as anyone with a graduate degree in English from a Canadian university well knew. Rather, texts, it was now universally acknowledged, in fact create the very reality they describe, and so the study of novels and short stories is, in fact, the study of the very material forces that shape the world. It is for this reason that all literary works must be - or even ought to be, in fact, for it is a moral duty - analyzed by literary professionals to ensure that any elements in them that fail to a perpetuate the collective good of society are pointed out and critiqued where they are not expunged. Thus if a writer does not in advance purge his work of anything which he thinks might run afoul of those professionals, he is justly subject to accusations of various kinds of moral turpitude.
Again, given this reality, Clark thought that carrying out his project might prove far more problematic than he had first believed - for how could he justify purging Janson’s story of its immoral elements, but still present his project as a factual representation of the real Canada, of real Canadian identity? Of course the consensus amongst his colleagues was that projects of this kind should represent the world as it ought to be, in order to bring that better world about, which was one of the purposes for constructing departments and organizations for the study and representation of national identity in the first place….
Shaking his head in order to dispel such troubling abstractions, Clark began to consider a more immediate moral issue that had emerged from Janson’s story. Had the van really been used to run over some teenagers? The way Janson said this made it sound to the professor as though it had been used to do so on purpose, and Clark found himself increasingly self-aware of his growing sense of disturbance in response to this prairie boy’s way of referring to such horrible things with something approaching a truly committed nihilist’s insouciance. Would he be told of a crime - a crime more serious than the drug-taking of which he had already heard - and could he get in trouble with the law for having heard such stories and not having reported them directly to the police? It was unfamiliar territory to the careful professor. As, indeed, and literally, were strange places like this so-called Fort St. John - these were most decidedly terra incognita in the nation Clark knew from his reading of the nation’s most celebrated literature, the heady dramas of middle-class life in southern Ontario or the descendants of Irish and British immigrants on the Atlantic coast….
After a moment when both men were lost in their thoughts, Janson emerged half-way from his own reverie and continued: “So there I was sitting in the front passenger seat next to Shaun in big dusty old banged up Brown Betty, which was full of equipment and other members of our crew I hadn’t really had a chance to talk to yet, striking out off the highway and into the deep dark mysterious bush. After listening to Shaun do it a couple of times and watching how he handled the radio, I asked if I could do it and he let me call out the kilometre markers as we led our little convoy up this weird logging road in the glowing early twilight, going faster than I was comfortable with but that was sort of what the whole thing was about: letting go the air of timidity in which I had been raised and accepting the world with love rather than fear. Again I know it might seem like a small thing but everything I did shone with a special significance that summer and changed me utterly.
“Well - following us, there were like three crews in the group, plus the company trucks with gear and such, so it was a pretty big procession. It was a bit scary since lots of the vehicles weren’t meant for driving on logging roads - one guy was even driving a little red Fiero, if you can believe that - and besides many of the drivers had no idea how to drive on those roads anyway, and we all seemed to be going way too fast or way too slow for comfort by turns. I can still remember that winding road, fenced in by walls of evergreen trees we couldn’t see through on either side, the narrow rough brownish golden stony road winding left and right and up and down for mile after mile in the lengthening shadows cast by the trees, cars in front of us and cars behind, going we knew not where, nor towards what, in that rich light that comes on a sunny day when evening approaches and the light is still strong but at a sharper angle….”
Clark opened his mouth to make a remark but closed it and allowed Janson, who was falling further into reverie, to continue.
“At one point we went around a corner and startled a moose. The road at that point was on the side of a pretty steep incline so the poor big lug couldn’t get off it and just ran away in front of us. Since we couldn’t go anywhere either, we just had to follow the poor ungainly fellow - if you’d ever followed a running moose from behind, you’d know just how ungraceful the noble goofy creatures are.
“Well after a while the incline levelled off and the moose ran off the road, and sometime after we eventually pulled off the logging road into a wide space with some scrub grasses or something and a pretty wide creek running to one side of it beside the treeline. This was where we were going to set up camp, and Shaun made it clear we should get a move on if we wanted to be done before the light went down.
“I got out of the van and tried to figure out what was going on in the hurried chaos of all the other planters and such who had arrived right behind us, but all the crew veterans and camp staff seemed busy and like they knew what they were doing, while a bunch of us bright-eyed and a little worried rookies were standing around wondering what to do. I sort of stuck near my old van mates who had pulled up behind Brown Betty, though Grandpa who was wiser than us had disappeared completely, probably taking the initiative on his own to set up his tent. So not knowing exactly what to do we collected our gear from Grandpa’s van and put it in a pile near where we saw some of the other rookies from our crew were standing - “
“And was your Alabama there?”
“No, she was too resourceful too get caught in a dumb situation like that.”
“What do you mean? You were just waiting for instructions - “
“Anyway, after a couple of minutes, it was pretty funny looking back on it, who shows up but jean jacket, wearing said article of sartorial bizarrity, with a fierce look on his long face coming out from under his stringy blond government dairy hockey hair.
‘Fuck you fucking rookies what the fuck do think you’re fucking doing fuck,’ he said, pretty aggressively. “You, shit for brains,” he said, looking at Sidney, ‘and you other geniuses’ - he said, pointing at me, and Jeff, and Price, and one other guy from our crew I hadn’t talked to yet but I got to know later as Daniel Stehenland - ‘you fucking pick up those fucking shovels over there and follow me fuck. And as for the rest of you,’ he said to the rest of the rookies standing around, I think there were like a dozen or so, mostly from our crew, ‘you go empty the fucking reefer fuck.’”
“‘Reefer’? But isn’t that a word for - were you discovering that after all this wasn’t exactly the kind of planting operation you were, ah, expecting?” interjected the increasingly nervous Clark, again lowering his voice and looking around to make sure no one was overhearing their conversation, before returning his gaze to Janson with some qualified excitement.
“Me and the guys who were supposed to follow jean jacket kind of shifted on our feet waiting for him - since we knew what we were supposed to do next, we just had to follow him when he was ready, but the rest of the rookies looked really confused and sort of made half-motions to go off in various random directions to carry out this coded order. Disgusted by their hesitation, jean jacket stamped his foot impatiently, swore under his breath for once, and pointed to where a big semi-trailer container thing had been parked, with the trailer balanced on some wooden beams where the truck thing I guess is linked up when the trailer’s being hauled, and said, pronouncing each word very distinctly in a pretty withering way:
‘GO - TO - THE FUCKING - REFRIGERATED - FUCKING - TRAILER - AND UNLOAD - THE FUCKING - BOXES - OF TREES - YOU GODDAMN - FUCKING - MORONS - FUCK.’
“What an unpleasant man!”
“Yeah. Anyway, after the other rookies started heading off towards the reefer, jean jacket stalked off and we followed him, picking up some old rusty shovels he pointed at as he headed on towards a small stand of trees. When we got there he pointed at the ground and said “Dig a fucking hole here for the fucking latrine, like four feet deep at least, fuck” and then turned to stalk off without saying a word more. That came as a bit of a surprise to us, and me and the new guy Daniel exchanged a look, which at least on my part said, ‘Well this is what you get when you’re new,’ when Price Vincent suddenly spoke up in his whiny voice and said, ‘But I don’t understand, we’re not supposed - ‘
“Jean jacket stopped stalking off immediately and stood ominously for a few seconds, showing only his back to us, before he turned around with a menacing skinny finger outstretched. ‘Who fucking said that? Which one of you little fuckers?’
“There was a moment of stunned and a little scared silence - we were all nice middle-class boys after all and not used to being talked to that way - and it turned out Price Vincent was better at expressing indignation than he was at actually taking responsibility for anything, since he just stood there staring at the ground. I exchanged another look with the new guy, and looked up at jean jacket and spoke. ‘We’re just wondering if we’re going to get paid for any of this,’ I said politely but sort of carefully firmly, ‘we didn’t know we were going to have to - ‘
“So jean jacket widens his eyes and looks at me like I’m crazy and says: ‘You like taking shits when you have to take shits fucknuts?’
‘Yes,’ I said, staring back at him, and he sort of backed off a bit. One thing I found that summer with these kinds of guys was that simply using clear language and reasonable arguments was way more effective than getting pissed off at them. Then he looked me in the eyes and dropped any pretence of rationalization and replied:
‘Dig that fucking hole or you guys are on the first fucking truck back into town, fuck.’
“So it was dig a latrine or get fired before we planted our first trees, and me and Daniel and Sidney just put it down to hazing and picked up the shovels and started to dig. Not Price Vincent though: he sat down and, while we dug the hole that kept him his job and that he would shit in every night for the next two weeks - well the coward sat there and bitterly insinuated that we were cowards for giving in to the evil boss. It was at that moment that a prejudice I had, and had always suspected would be confirmed by experience, became a postjudice confirmed indeed by my experience.”
“And what was that prejudice?”
“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who work and take responsibility in accordance with a reasonable accommodation of contingency and those who don’t, but selfishly take advantage of the work and responsibility of the former.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Shit, sorry professor, I’m ranting again. Just to close that off - the Price Vincents of the world - well they’re the kind of people who shit in the holes other people dig for them, and then presume to judge the people who dug them.”
“Funny thing digging that hole was that farm boy Sidney had the hardest time and always wanted to take breaks. Daniel and I exchanged a look when he started complaining and Daniel told him that actually two of us could dig the hole faster than four of us could, which was not true in itself but was certainly true with respect to a situation where half your group is whining instead of working. Sidney and Price Vincent leapt up at the suggestion and took off towards where the camp was being set up. This gave me and Daniel a chance to share a laugh at the whole situation and get acquainted a bit. He was a couple of years older than me and was studying English at UBC - “
“Ah yes, a fine university, with a distinguished English department, many of the professors there were trained, uh, in, uh, Toronto - “
“Right. Over the course of the season I learned a lot from Daniel, who was way more experienced and worldly than me, though that wasn’t much of a feat, including the details of menstrual cycles, on which Daniel was something of an expert since his girlfriend in Vancouver didn’t want to use birth control, the ins and outs of acid and mushrooms, which were as alien and mysterious to me as the people who reportedly took them but whom I had never met…”
“And where was this Daniel from, for the record?”
“Well, in short, and pardon the rather clinical language, but it is important to us academics to get these things right, you understand - ah, yes, in short, the regional origin of a Canadian is an important facet of his identity, no, it is indeed the stone from which the jewel itself is cut - and, and an assessment of regional character is a crucial element of our project - “
“Right. Daniel was - I think he was from Winnipeg.”
“Aha! Excellent - so far there have been no Manitobans - “
“Right. But he’d grown up in India, and had only moved to Winnipeg when he was 16.”
“You don’t say! Was he - was he uh - well I hope it’s not awkward to ask, but, you know, for the sake of my research, it’s important that - I only say this because I have colleagues who think it’s, well, it’s um, it’s uh, how shall I put it, well, that it’s - well at least suspiciously, potentially - to ask about someone’s - um, was he uh of East Indian, um, extraction?” Clark finally blurted out, sweating a little and pointedly focusing on his pen as he held it against his notebook, for some reason, rather fiercely.
“Right, Canadians say ‘East Indian’, I’d forgot about that,” replied Janson, eyeing Clark. “Daniel was half - his father was white Canadian - “
“I see - “
” - and his mother was brown Indian, they met - “
“Well, young man, there’s no need to mention her colour - “
“Right. Anyway his story is pretty interesting in itself, he came on his mother’s side from a family of basically ethnic minority rebels from a lawless region of India near Nepal, and he came from that environment, where people poured molten lead into each other’s ears to carry out caste-based vengeance and where women were so horribly treated that there was a high rate of suicide from drinking pesticide - he went from that world to Canada, which gave him a perspective on things here I hadn’t encountered so personally before….
“Well anyway after we finished digging the latrine we went back to where we’d piled our stuff and saw that a lot of planters had put up their tents in one corner of the camp area, so we went over there too and started to set up our own tents. It was sort of funny seeing all the different tents and equipment people had - there were some who were obviously inexperienced campers who had all kinds of fancy equipment, but mostly unused, and there were others who like me had obviously just raided their parents’, or in some cases we suspected their grandparents’ garages, like Jeff for example who had an old canvas contraption that must have weighed eighty pounds and which he accidentally burned down later in the summer, and of course there were the really experienced bush people who laid down spruce branches under the tarps they spread out under their tents - “
“Where did they get the spruce branches from, may I ask?”
“We were in the bush, professor.”
“But did they - did they pick them up off the ground - “
“No, they cut them off the trees. They used them as natural bedding and insulation, keeping the ground underneath them soft and dry. Some of the really experienced guys actually used their planting shovels to dig little trenches around their tents as well, and - “
“But, weren’t there, laws, or, or something, against simply going up to trees and, and cutting off branches from them? And wasn’t that rather against the spirit of the whole endeavour? I mean - “
“The bush isn’t a park or a zoo, at least not to those who live and work in it. It’s not an institutionalized - well not unless people carry their institutionalization there with them. So in any case as it turns out me and Daniel were lucky we’d got there a bit later, so we could see how and where the veterans had set up their tents, and copy their tactics.
“After we were done setting up our tents, we went over to where a big white canvas mess tent had been set up.
“It was already getting dark outside, and cool, and the warmly lit mess tent, though it was of course just a big frame covered by some kind of synthetic tarp, was inviting - especially because there was no where else for us to go besides back to our cold, dark tents. The ground in the tent was firm and grassy - I remember finding it strange to be standing on dirt inside the only thing approaching a real inside there was for a hundred miles in any direction - though I didn’t appreciate it as much as I would have if I had known that over the course of the contract the ground would become a muddy soup from all the cork-boot traffic.”
“What are - “
“The big tent was crowded but comfty in the way of such places - long benches set up along long tables, the warmth from stoves and a big propane heater like a small jet engine and lights and smells from cooking mixing with the fresh cool air of mountain bush in the evening. Though I was still experiencing some of the same mixture of shyness and excitement I’d felt since I got into that shitty van just the day before, things were different now that I had Daniel as a pal, and I felt the same increase in confidence it is natural to feel when you can approach a situation as part of a group, however small or new or unfamiliar.
“Daniel and I got our food from the grumpy cook, who I would later learn was a green death chain-smoker and married to a fish-poacher who hung around the camp doing odd jobs and who was always offering unsolicited backhanded apologies for his bigoted and ignorant views, and we ate an awesome meal, like we would have every day on that contract: as much food as you could eat, and all hearty though cheap - mountains of potatoes, mashed or otherwise, neverending meat and steamed vegetables, or soup, or what have you.
As humble as the situation was, it was something of a miracle to me, like some kind of humble thousand and one nights fairy tale - I was still a teenager after all, with a teenager’s bottomless stomach, and that kind and quantity of food was exactly what I needed on a normal day, let alone after a full day of hard planting labour. The fact that I’d spent my high school years in a poor rural boarding school with no fridge of my own to raid, little money, no care packages from home - well that meant that I’d come to take being hungry for granted over the years, and seeing this kind of plenty dished out as a necessary matter of fact was I know just a detail but a meaningful one to me.”
“You - hold on for a moment please - what is this ‘green death’?”
“Craven menthol cigarettes, they had green on the package and some people said they were the most likely to give you cancer - a claim which green death smokers appropriated and converted into a point of pride.”
“But that’s terrible, to romanticize cancer - “
“People talk that way about death all the time. So, there we were - “
“Wait - and you say you went to a rural boarding school? Was this for - well of course you needn’t tell me if you don’t want to - but if I may, so I may understand your story in a more, a more, I suppose, autobiographical context - could you - was it a school for troubled uh boys, or was it perhaps a school for the, um rural elite?” stammered Clark, confused by his need to articulate what he privately considered to be one sad and one absurd possibility in the very same sentence.
Janson studied his hands with some intensity for a moment and turned to Clark to reply, his eyes focusing on the space just before Clark’s eyes. “No.”
Clark, expecting the young man to go on, wrote down the single word and poised his pen, waiting to write more. But Janson simply returned his gaze to his hands, and after a moment continued his tale.
“Well, so, anyway, Daniel and I couldn’t find a seat next to our crew, who were mostly eating with Shaun on a long table with no spaces left on the bench on either side, so we just sat amongst the crowd and got better acquainted. When we were getting up to go, I turned to look for wherever the place was to put away our dirty dishes and, shock of my life, I almost bumped into Alabama, who had been coming up to Daniel and me from behind. She had the most beautiful green eyes I’d ever seen and though she had large breasts she was clearly not wearing a bra under her plain blue t-shirt, and the way she filled out her dusty old army pants - anyways I almost dropped my tray and, trying hard to keep my eyes focused above her neckline, and believing that of course I was failing to do so and she knew that, and also knew that I knew that she knew that - in other words, torturing myself in the manner of all shy young men - well so there she was, smiling and looking down at me.
She said something like, ‘You’re on Shaun’s crew, right?’”
‘We’re all heading out to the fire pit.’
And with that she turned and went out the front of the cook tent into the night. I went over to Daniel, who had seen the whole thing.
‘Fuck she’s hot,’ he said approvingly, as he watched Alabama go.
‘Saw her first buddy,’ I said, trying to be guyish.
‘Don’t worry man - I got a girlfriend back home, she’s older, 21. She could probably teach that girl a thing or two I tell you - ‘”
“Ah,” interjected Clark, who turned over his notebook to look at his watch with a rather exaggerated gesture, “really, I hope you don’t take this concession to the practicalities of our situation as anything like a critique of your, of you, but I’m afraid that we will be landing at 11 and I have yet to hear many details of the practical materiality of the form of labour - “
“Of course, Professor Clark, but in order to understand planting you need to understand the lived experience - idealistic, reductive fantasies about “materiality” misrepresent - “
“Uh, ok,” the professor conceded uncomfortably, again giving way in spite of his misgivings to his interviewee’s particular desires, “please just continue as you see fit.”
“OK, so, we went out to find the fire, which wasn’t hard to do in the dark. There were about twenty people sitting around a big fire, chatting, swapping stories, in what like I said I was coming to understand was typical planter behaviour. I located Alabama on the other side of the fire from where I sat down on the mossy ground and again tried to avoid looking at her, at the same time as I was filled with the delicious - I guess I should say the heavy enervation of my delicious crush - and picked up on the main conversation that was happening on my side of the fire.
“Off to my right was an older guy - he was probably 28 - who turned out to be a camp supervisor. He was already balding and had a short blond beard and was wearing some kind of well-worn khaki poncho. I remember he could roll a Drum with one hand while driving a quad across a schnarby block with the other - pretty incredible actually. Anyways, I don’t remember what he was saying as much as I remember the look in his eyes, with the yellow fire glinting in them against the black backdrop of the night, a look at once of kind and inviting, careful and bold, but ultimately unconfident lust.
“I followed his gaze and there, a couple of people to his right, was sitting one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. She was tallish, thinnish, healthy and dusky, with beautiful brown hair twisted over one shoulder, a beautiful smile, and sexy in a way that somehow made it obvious she was from Quebec, and she was, I noticed as I peered at what was revealed by the light that flickered from the fire on her body, she was dressed in some plain blue jean overalls, which somehow just completed an earthy sensuality - “
“Sorry - but could you please tell me what, for the record, of course, what you mean when you say it was ‘clear she was from Quebec’?”
“Sure, I can try, but it’s not like some kind of worked-out intellectual theory, it’s just the sort of thing that’s manifest to those fully, I suppose the right thing to say is, embedded in Canadian cultural life.”
“But I don’t - “
“But, for the record, of course what I’m saying may involve various levels and forms of projection and stereotyping and is certainly based in unfalsifiable generalizations. And it may come from my own personal experience more than a broad cultural generalization should - but the fact is that cultures really do differ from each other, and Quebec women, and in particular Montreal women, are just recognizably different from the rest of Canadian women. I suppose there’s no polite way to say this, but most Canadian women - well - not to put too fine a point on it - have you noticed I’m hesitating so much - “
“Perhaps you should just say what you’re thinking, it can’t be any worse - “
“But it’s just so hard to do. It’s part of our condition, and as much as I fucking hate it - look, I just worry so much about the worst, most uncharitable aspersions that could be cast on me for anything I say - worrying that people will attribute to my words the worst and stupidest interpretations they can come up with, and then accuse me of their own stupidity - and so we’re always guarding against that uncharitability and casual, moralized puritanical slander - well, ok, here goes: the truth, at last, about Canadian women, is that, with the exception of French Canadian women, who are most certainly distinct - “
“I should mention,” interjected Clark, as the Stéphane Dionish flight attendant moved past them with a stainless steel cart and forgot to offer them peanuts, “that although I am, of course, very personally interested in hearing what you are about to say, that, well, I don’t believe that my, um, my publishers, will perceive what you say to be consonant with their program - “
“I should mention, um, fuck them and the dishonest milquetoast - “ Janson began, his face growing red and his hands balled into fists.
But before flying off into another rant, the young man’s eyes suddenly looked very sad to the astonished Clark. After a moment, and kindly, Clark asked: “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, but it pretends to be left.”
“What? I don’t understand - “
“Look, professor.” Janson attempted a smile, and spoke in a softer tone, lightly touching Clark’s arm. “This story is very important to me - it’s part of my life, the one life I’m ever going to have - and I think you’ve subjected it enough already. I know it’s not your fault, you don’t know - “
“I’m sorry, but you - I think you misunderstand the issues at stake - I don’t think - “
“I know. But look - can I ask you to please be content with what I’ve told you so far, and let me use the rest of my time on this flight to prepare for my conference?”
Clark was stunned by the suddenness of Janson’s retreat. Here he had encountered exactly the kind of thing he was looking for - a real Canadian tale - but the young man relating it had suddenly become alienated from him. He thought instinctively that he ought to try to resolve the situation somehow, but then he reflected that the young man, presumably in part because of his regional origins, had some sort of chip on his shoulder, and that was why he had become so contrary. Perhaps in time, the professor thought, such conditions will change, and all Canadians will finally be on the same page. But not yet, not yet, and it was perhaps best, as Janson himself had clearly concluded, for the both of them to move on.
Sadly, the professor nodded at Janson and said kindly, but with a reserved hint of stern superiority: “Again, young man, I’m sorry that you - that you have misunderstood me, but I do thank you for the narrative you have so kindly related for the sake of my project.”
A corner of Janson’s lip curled up in what was to Clark an inscrutable smile. “Good luck with that, professor.”
And with that, Janson, who had moments earlier been discussing some of the most important moments of his life, reached under the seat in front of him, pulled a laptop out of a laptop bag, opened it wide on his lap, and began reading in an evidently exclusive silence. Clark, still somewhat stunned and saddened by the abrupt transition in his circumstances, turned away from Janson and carefully stowed his precious red notebook back in his pocket.
Though our academic hero now found his situation somewhat awkward, sitting right there next to his subject after all that had happened between them, but now without talking, he soon found that he was himself very tired, and concluded he could use a nap before their arrival at St. John’s.
After a few minutes, he drifted off to sleep, hoping to awaken with a solution to his problem with Duncan and the fast-approaching toe-dipping ceremony by the sea, and dreaming of a forest’s worth of sexy, recognizably Quebecois fir trees, clothed in blue overalls, swinging their hips.