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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Samuel de Champlain Monument in Orillia's Couchiching Beach Park is pictured.