Mon­u­men­tal mem­o­ries

Packet & Times (Orillia) - - NEWS - KATE GRIGG PEO­PLE

It sounded like thun­der, man­made thun­der. A loud crash­ing com­ing from down by the lake, am­pli­fied by the water, by Lake Couch­ich­ing, which must have lapped at the shore in just the same way, with the same beau­ti­ful in­dif­fer­ence the day the Cham­plain Mon­u­ment was erected in 1925.

Peo­ple must have ap­plauded then, clapped for the un­veil­ing, all 18,000 of them (more than dou­ble the town’s pop­u­la­tion at­tended the event), a noise that may also have re­sem­bled the roll of thun­der. The town dig­ni­taries spruced up and beam­ing, flow­ers, per­haps, in their but­ton­holes. The women in hats and gloves, their fin­ery flut­ter­ing in the sum­mer breeze.

Be­cause it was some­thing to cel­e­brate, af­ter the war. (The First World War de­layed the ar­rival of the mon­u­ment by 10 years.) Be­cause it was beau­ti­ful, Ver­non March’s statue, beau­ti­ful beyond de­scrip­tion — a piece of world­class sculp­ture by some mir­a­cle plunked down in the heart of Oril­lia. In the park, by the lake, sit­u­ated in na­ture, which alone en­dures, re­mains in speech­less wit­ness to hu­man his­tory, na­ture the back­drop to the go­ings-on of peo­ple, word­less ob­server of that other pow­er­ful force, hu­man na­ture.

There’s hardly any point in writ­ing it down, record­ing what peo­ple do, what the hu­man race gets up to. It’s the same thing over and over: love and hate, war and peace on ev­ery scale and in ev­ery vari­a­tion from do­mes­tic to world con­fla­gra­tion. The Cham­plain Mon­u­ment de­layed while 65 mil­lion bus­ied them­selves try­ing to slaugh­ter each other. One man toil­ing to make some­thing beau­ti­ful while count­less toiled in an un­nec­es­sary hell.

March’s mon­u­ment ap­plauded one mo­ment and crit­i­cized an­other, erected one year and re­moved (tem­po­rar­ily, they say) only days ago. While hu­mans try to de­cide what to make of them­selves, come to terms with who they are, what they’ve done, what ver­sion of them­selves they can live with. The white man ashamed of im­pos­ing his will on an­other peo­ple; the peo­ple im­posed on ashamed of let­ting it hap­pen. All of them, ev­ery tribe, white, red, brown and yel­low, won­der­ful, all of them ter­ri­ble, all of them right­eous, all of them guilty. How the moon and the stars must laugh. How the sun must grow an­noyed shin­ing down on a world of fools.

Of which I am un­doubt­edly one. A fool to think the Cham­plain Mon­u­ment would al­ways be there to com­fort me, as it has done since I was young. To think time would never touch the stone and bronze that lit some­thing in­side me as a child, that it would en­dure far longer than I needed it to. I didn’t care about the rea­son it was built; I only saw the char­ac­ters. I didn’t see it as a mon­u­ment com­mem­o­rat­ing one thing or an­other; I saw beauty, and couldn’t turn my eyes away, couldn’t keep my hands off it. Climbed ev­ery chance I got onto the laps of the Na­tives, men as nat­u­ral and beau­ti­ful as the lake and the trees. Felt their metal sinews warm be­neath my hand, more alive than flesh and blood.

I didn’t care for the priest, hold­ing his cross like a weapon in the air. Didn’t find the fur trader of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est. They had some­thing to sell, th­ese men, wanted some­thing from other peo­ple. Whereas Cham­plain and the Na­tives had a dif­fer­ent air, men en­gaged in learn­ing, with nav­i­gat­ing the world around them, look­ing about them­selves. It was them I loved, as did, per­haps, Ver­non March, since he made them (at least to my mind) the most beau­ti­ful, gave them the best lines, made them flow and rip­ple in a way that strikes the heart; dif­fer­ent, the na­tives and Cham­plain, but equally com­pelling. Cham­plain a lit­tle pen­sive, a lit­tle bur­dened by hav­ing to be (ac­cord­ing to Wikipedia) “a nav­i­ga­tor, car­tog­ra­pher, drafts­man, sol­dier, ex­plorer, ge­og­ra­pher, eth­nol­o­gist, diplo­mat, and chron­i­cler.” Tired but main­tain­ing his dig­nity, a kind of weary flour­ish to his hat and cape.

The Na­tives bear­ing a dig­nity of their own, that of men who sur­vive by their own wits, their own ac­quired wis­dom. Who re­spect the land and all its crea­tures and thereby earn their own re­spect. Bear­ing a beauty other men lose as leav­ing child­hood they grow ve­neers, take their place in ar­ti­fi­cial worlds, no longer nat­u­ral, slaves to po­si­tion and pos­ses­sion.

Why don’t they see, th­ese men of var­i­ous stripe and hue, they are all caught in the same predica­ment of be­ing alive, all play­ers, as Shake­speare said, on the stage of life? Why don’t they see their con­trasts de­fine them, sharpen their out­lines, make them clear and vivid fig­ures in the pa­rade of life — that it’s the as­sort­ment of char­ac­ters that makes the pic­ture come alive? As Ver­non March took the nar­ra­tive he was given (March was com­mis­sioned to cre­ate a mon­u­ment com­mem­o­rat­ing the 300th an­niver­sary of Cham­plain’s visit to Huro­nia) and in­fus­ing each com­po­nent with ev­ery spark of his be­ing made some­thing first-rate and beau­ti­ful.

Bring it back. Rear­range the fig­ures if you must. Re­word the plaque. But bring back the Cham­plain Mon­u­ment. It be­longs not just to the city of Oril­lia, not just to his­tory, not to the white man or the Na­tive, not to the zealot or the mer­chant, but to the realm of art, to its own true self, to the very pageant of life. Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Oril­lia and tells sto­ries of lo­cal peo­ple in her weekly col­umn. If you have a story you think she might be in­ter­ested in, email kate­grigg@gmail.com.

PACKET & TIMES FILES

The Sa­muel de Cham­plain Mon­u­ment in Oril­lia's Couch­ich­ing Beach Park is pic­tured.

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