Road­kill Heart

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - ROBIN K. MACDON­ALD

I DON’T WAKE UP BE­SIDE EARL in the low light of dusk think­ing I’m about to make my first kill. I wake up warm be­neath the heavy, home­made goose feather blan­ket and the heat of an­other body flank­ing mine. On this Satur­day morn­ing in Fe­bru­ary, six months into our re­la­tion­ship, I’m wak­ened by the pres­sure of a full blad­der, in a cabin with no plumb­ing or honey bucket. Be­yond the den of our bed, the in­side air is nearly as cold as out­side. It feels like re­frig­er­ated sheet metal against the few inches of skin I ex­pose in or­der to breathe. When I can no longer lie still, climb­ing out from un­der the blan­ket is like jump­ing into a north­ern lake. The trick is not to think.

While I quick-step across the frozen ply­wood to light a fire in the stove, a slight move­ment through an ice-cor­nered win­dow catches my eye. Fifty me­tres away, be­neath a wil­low shrub along the banks of the river, it’s as sub­tle as the mist of breath against a slate sky. Then the flock comes into view against branches and snow. Win­ter ptarmi­gans in near per­fect cam­ou­flage. They look like five large snow­balls with blue shad­ows for tails. Through binoc­u­lars I grab from a nail hook on the cabin wall, I see their small black eyes, the slight curve of their bills and tracks from their feathered feet. For­get­ting the fire and cold, I put on my muk­luks and down jacket, un­zipped over my pa­ja­mas, load the .22 that Earl keeps un­der the bed and slip out into the morn­ing.

Be­fore I pulled a trig­ger and watched an an­i­mal’s body drop from its life, there were months of tar­get prac­tice and min­utes of gun safety. It was pop cans on tree stumps. It was en­ergy con­cen­trated into the sight of the 12 gauge, the adren­a­line that came from han­dling a firearm for

the first time, and the butt of the stock buck­ing my shoul­der when I pulled the trig­ger. As my steadi­ness and aim im­proved, there was the sur­pris­ing sat­is­fac­tion of the shell launch­ing alu­minum shards into flight.

Only a few years be­fore, my favourite top was a pur­ple T-shirt with the out­line of a fox and the words, “Fem­i­nists for An­i­mal Rights.” I was a mem­ber of the en­vi­ron­men­tal group and the founder of the Nat­u­ral­ist group on cam­pus. I was a veg­e­tar­ian.

Eat­ing a meat-free diet made me an in­con­ve­nient guest when I set­tled in north­ern Man­i­toba. My ur­ban-aca­demic per­spec­tive blurred in this new land­scape. The ptarmi­gan, moose, geese, rab­bit and fish that were part of the tra­di­tional Cree diet range freely in wild places. Hunt­ing footprints are soft on the land. I be­gan fish­ing on a ca­noe trip and grad­u­ally made my way up the food chain when I started dat­ing Earl.

Each week­end, we set out in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion from the cabin. He taught me how to dis­cern a soli­tary rab­bit track from a rab­bit high­way, no­tice the places where moose had stopped to feed on wil­low, and to see the black nose and eyes of a white-furred fox against snow. This too was hunt­ing prac­tice.

Camp and my re­la­tion­ship with Earl are one. Our love in­cludes the ter­ri­tory that holds it. On Fri­day af­ter­noons, I step out of my work clothes and town life and drive the snow-packed gravel high­way from Thomp­son, where I live, to Miskim­min, where Earl lives. To­gether, we drive north from the re­serve, up the last stretch of un­paved road to the trail­head and then snow­shoe, pad­dle or walk into the place we call camp.

Deep within the bo­real for­est, camp is a one-room cabin and out­house on a cleared cor­ner of land be­tween Wasachewan creek and the river by the same name. The ply­wood cabin sits close to the places where Earl and his rel­a­tives fish, hunt and trap. It’s where Earl and I live our to­geth­er­ness with few other hu­man en­coun­ters. It’s my favourite place.

Snow­shoe­ing to camp on the cold­est nights, ten­sion in my ears un­furls like fid­dle­heads in spring. There’s no ur­ban glare to drown the stars, and the sky is a mil­lion air bub­bles of light in deep pur­ple glass. Subarc­tic cold gives high res­o­lu­tion to ev­ery shape and colour. Fresh snow lies like white fur on the earth and re­flects starlight. I feel

the hushed life of the trees. I feel my­self hush in re­sponse to all of this. It’s the kind of quiet you hold when some­one is mov­ing near and you are try­ing not to be found. When you are only breath­ing.

“There’s a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion be­tween hunter and hunted, peo­ple and an­i­mals,” a man named Vern had ex­plained dur­ing my ori­en­ta­tion for work­ing in Cree ter­ri­tory. “We thank the an­i­mal that gave its life for us and the Great Spirit who pro­vides ev­ery­thing. Hunters used to leave a sign of re­spect, like hang­ing an an­i­mal bone at the site of the kill. These days, Cree peo­ple might of­fer to­bacco.” Vern told us that when hunted with a re­spect­ful heart, the an­i­mal re­lin­quishes its spirit.

I told Earl about what Vern had said one week­end and asked if he had ever heard any­thing like that be­fore. He let go of the white sports sock he was us­ing to clean his ri­fle and looked up at me. We were wait­ing out a storm be­fore snow­shoe­ing back to the high­way.

“My grand­par­ents still have mis­sion­ar­ies in their minds,” Earl said, look­ing out the cabin win­dow where ice pel­lets were fly­ing by hor­i­zon­tally. “The priests and nuns told them that kind of stuff was an­i­mal wor­ship. The old-timers still love moose stew, but now they’re hooked on their Bi­bles and Cree hymns. My grannie just tells us never to kill any­thing on Sun­days.”

“What’s your take on that?” I asked.

Earl had started back at the clean­ing and was run­ning the sock back and forth through the trig­ger guard. The land­scape of his face be­gan to har­den.

“I wish I knew more about the old ways,” he fi­nally ad­mit­ted. “But these days, if some­one builds a sweat in Misk, some­one else burns it down. Now we do to each other what white peo­ple did to us. Now I don’t know what to be­lieve. It’s like I live in a Cree body, but my soul was mail-or­dered from a Sears cat­a­logue.”

I was a teenager when I learned about the bru­tal­i­ties of western con­tact on First Na­tions. My mind was shaped to in­ter­pret ex­pe­ri­ences bluntly into cat­e­gories of good or bad. Red good, white bad, life de­posited like coins into this dys­func­tional struc­ture. This oc­cu­pied my belly like a tight knot. Em­bod­ied in white skin, I wanted to be good.

The way this played out was to learn ev­ery­thing I could about Swampy Cree cul­ture and to turn my back on my own her­itage. Not only did my Scot­tish and Ir­ish ances­try fail to in­ter­est me, but my

blood­lines be­came as­so­ci­ated with the worst col­lec­tive be­hav­iours of every­one who came from away.

My first kill is choice­less. I’m obliv­i­ous to -40 de­grees Cel­sius against my skin and the weight of air that tem­per­a­ture mov­ing into my lungs as I weave be­tween trees to­wards the flock. I keep a pe­riph­eral eye out for branches so I don’t knock any as I walk, feel the pil­lowed steps of leather footwear car­ry­ing me silently over snow, and hear the beat of my heart as though through a stetho­scope. When I have a clear shot, I un­lock the trig­ger guard, raise the ri­fle and aim at the neck of the clos­est bird. I hold my breath and pull the trig­ger. There’s the clap of gun­shot, and the tail of that sound fol­low­ing it and fad­ing back into si­lence.

In the place where the flock had been, it looks like snow flur­ries in re­verse, snow lift­ing back into sky. When this clears, the bright­est colour on the land is a splash of red dots in the white be­neath the wil­low.

Earl comes run­ning out of the cabin in his pa­ja­mas and muk­luks. “Holy crap, baby! I can’t be­lieve you just blasted that bird, man.” “Me nei­ther.”

I’d taken women’s stud­ies classes at univer­sity and was dis­turbed by the patterns of in­fan­tiliz­ing names men called women, but I like it when Earl calls me baby. I like it when he calls me “man,” too.

As we look down at the bird, I feel a mix­ture of sor­row and ela­tion cut­ting through shock. I think of the four birds who’d lifted into flight when the other one fell. I think of how beau­ti­ful and dis­crete they’d looked against the wil­low branches when I’d watched them through the binoc­u­lars.

“I saw you mov­ing be­tween the trees in your pa­ja­mas and I was think­ing what the hell? Blast­ing a bird first thing in the morn­ing. Holeeee!” Earl shakes his head while his eyes hold mine. Then he picks the ptarmi­gan up by its legs and we walk back to the cabin. We fry eggs and hash­browns and lis­ten to Hill­billy Heaven on the tran­sis­tor ra­dio, just like we do ev­ery Satur­day morn­ing, but this one feels dif­fer­ent.

Earl’s giddy about the hunt, telling and retelling dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same story of my first pa­jama-clad kill. “Wait till I tell my grannie,” he says, with real pride in his voice. Noth­ing makes Earl shine like ar­riv­ing home with coun­try food to share.

Later, he shows me how to cut and clean the bird and we fry it up for sup­per in but­ter and wine in­stead of our usual store-bought

pasta and tomato sauce. It cooks darker and pinker than chicken. It’s lean and there’s a trace of the sharp rich flavour of pine sap. The meat tastes like the ptarmi­gan’s life. The small warm heart that had been hold­ing its own against the deep freeze of a bo­real win­ter is now still. I have no sense that this an­i­mal had vol­un­tar­ily re­lin­quished its spirit. I had taken some­thing that could not be re­turned. There was noth­ing holy about it.

Af­ter sup­per, Earl and I sit on plas­tic school chairs in front of the stove, our toques and muk­luks hang­ing from a string above. A kerosene lamp fills the small space with amber light. The fire tinks. My heart feels like road­kill.

Earl reaches for my hand, link­ing our fin­gers, white and brown as a win­ter land­scape.

“We’re like old-timers when we’re here,” he says.

At those words, the hunt be­gins to shift in­side me, open­ing and lift­ing, not star­tled and fast like the ptarmi­gan when they heard the shot at dawn, but grace­ful as a sand­hill crane float­ing into flight.

I’ve be­gun to know the Cree men and women Earl calls old­timers be­cause of the changes that hap­pen to Earl in their pres­ence. His hu­mil­ity comes for­ward and his face soft­ens as he lis­tens, the way it does with his grannie Ruby. With­out un­der­stand­ing all that they say when they speak in Cree, I al­ways feel that these old-timers have some­thing that Earl and I don’t or that lies be­yond our aware­ness. This some­thing has a qual­ity of space and is as steady and ground­ing as the Earth be­neath my feet.

Once while I was wait­ing for Earl to fin­ish pack­ing for camp, I came across a doc­u­ment on the cof­fee ta­ble in the house where he lives with his par­ents, an older brother and vary­ing com­bi­na­tions of nieces and neph­ews. The text was made from trans­lated tran­scripts of in­ter­views in Cree with el­ders from Misk. It con­tained de­scrip­tions of their re­la­tion­ships with their tribal home­land within the bo­real for­est. The word, cher­ish was used to de­scribe how they feel about the land and wa­ters. They said that ev­ery part of the Earth is sa­cred and re­spected in their me­mory and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Re­mem­ber­ing this, it oc­curs to me that the old-timers too had killed the an­i­mals they loved.

Earl never uses the word cher­ish, but some­times when it’s too dark to do much else and we’re sit­ting in front of the old oil bar­rel he con­verted into a wood stove, he says, “Ain’t no other place I’d rather be.”

A post­card ar­rives in my mailbox in Thomp­son when I’m twen­tyeight-years-old, a year af­ter Earl and I started spend­ing week­ends at camp. On the front is an image of a de­ity who ap­pears fem­i­nine, eastern, and calm. The nar­row gaze of her eyes is cast to­wards a semiopen vene­tian blind, dap­pled with orange and white light, as though watch­ing for a spe­cial guest to pull up out­side.

The image has a still­ing ef­fect and en­gages my imag­i­na­tion. Who is this de­ity? Who is she wait­ing for? Why was she in my mailbox? The words Ya­sod­hara Ashram are im­printed be­neath the image. I keep the card propped up on a cor­ner of my desk; my first al­tar.

When I look at the post­card, I feel off kil­ter. I love my work, but I’m burn­ing out from my so­cial ser­vice job. Tired of mov­ing, I want to set­tle, and a rest­less voice in my head keeps ques­tion­ing my place. Some days my body sug­gests I be a car­pen­ter and other days, a farmer. I’m yearn­ing for mean­ing out­side of work. I want a way through my con­tra­dic­tions and more bal­ance in my life. I want space to clar­ify what mat­ters.

A friend sug­gests I try yoga. On Mon­day nights, in the can­dlelit base­ment of the Men­non­ite church, I pay at­ten­tion to my breath, be­come more aware of the places my body holds ten­sion and the role of my mind in re­lax­ation. Amidst the smoke of san­dal­wood from the in­cense the teacher keeps burn­ing through­out the class, I stand like a moun­tain, a tree, a war­rior. The teacher is not teacher-trained but took yoga classes in far­away Toronto. He’s a lawyer by day and says he needs all of us to get him­self to the mat and keep his anx­i­ety at bay. It’s the first time yoga is be­ing of­fered in Thomp­son.

Ly­ing be­neath the wool blan­ket dur­ing end re­lax­ation re­minds me of be­ing tucked into bed by my mom when I was a child. It re­news me like a walk through the for­est.

In Fe­bru­ary, I trade in three weeks of over­time at the YWCA, where I man­age the Depart­ment of So­cial Ac­tion, for three weeks at Ya­sod­hara Ashram, the source of the mys­te­ri­ous post­card. The ashram is lo­cated in Bri­tish Columbia and I reg­is­ter for the only pro­gram I can af­ford, the karma yoga pro­gram. Ac­cord­ing to the brochure with the sparkling moun­tain lake on the front, this in­volves eight hours of yoga a day. As­sum­ing that this karma yoga is the stretch­ing and balanc­ing, strength­en­ing and re­lax­ing I do on the mat on Mon­day nights, eight hours seems ex­ces­sive, but the out­comes have been so

com­pelling from a one-hour class that I’m cu­ri­ous to know what will hap­pen af­ter eight.

It quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that karma yoga has some­thing to do with work. Af­ter spend­ing the first morn­ing at the ashram clean­ing toi­lets and boot trays, sweep­ing and vac­u­um­ing, re­sis­tance sets in against my choice to be where I am. I be­gin to plot my es­cape to Nel­son, the clos­est town.

At the same time, I no­tice that the work feels dif­fer­ent here than at the YWCA. While I love my com­mu­nity devel­op­ment job, some­thing about the way I’ve been ap­proach­ing this work is not sus­tain­able. I’m at the ashram be­cause I’m burn­ing out and reg­u­larly over­whelmed. Whether build­ing and in­stalling shelves, shov­el­ling snow, or re­fill­ing salt and pep­per shak­ers at the ashram, the other karma yo­gis man­age to per­form each mun­dane task with an an­noy­ing zeal. Ev­ery lit­tle thing they do seems to mat­ter. In­stead of gos­sip-soaked cof­fee breaks, karma yo­gis pause to re­flect on how they work in re­la­tion to their ideals, how they work to­gether and ob­serve what hap­pens in their minds and bodies as they work. Af­ter sev­eral days of watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to them, in a mo­ment of sus­pended judge­ment, I get the feel­ing that they’re tak­ing care of things.

On each of my first days at the ashram, I have a sig­nif­i­cant in­sight or feel in­spired by some­thing some­one in the com­mu­nity does or says. Each night, I de­cide to stay one more day.

Dur­ing my sec­ond week at the ashram, a group of stu­dents who are part of a three-month course de­cide to dance in the atrium of the main build­ing while we wait for the lunch bell to ring. The atrium is a small cir­cu­lar room with an adult-size statue of Guan Yin, the com­pas­sion­ate bod­hisattva, in the cen­tre. The stu­dents, men and women of many gen­er­a­tions, sing as they dance. Fin­gers ro­tate be­tween mu­dras, feet stomp and make small happy steps, cir­cling the group around the dig­ni­fied Guan Yin. I stud­ied bal­let in Grades 5 and 6, jazz in my teens and ball­room dance with my house­mates in Thomp­son, but the spirit of this danc­ing is as dif­fer­ent from what I know as karma yoga is to my ha­bit­ual ways of work­ing. The dance en­chants me. The ceil­ing of the atrium is two sto­ries high, topped with a sky­light win­dow. The mid­day sun pours down on the dancers, Guan Yin, me. The tech­ni­cal skills of the dancers vary but com­mon to all is this some­thing else. It’s like see­ing an owl in a tree. Watch­ing them, I de­cide to recom­mit to the re­main­der of my weeks at the ashram, if only to learn the dance.

At my re­quest, one of the res­i­dents agrees to teach what I learn is called the Mother of Light dance to in­ter­ested karma yo­gis dur­ing our half-hour lunch break.

Phyl­lis is tall and an­gu­lar, no-non­sense and sweet, with short curly grey hair. She’s al­ter­nately gen­tle and sharp. I learn later in my stay that ashram res­i­dents give seven eight-hour days of karma yoga a week. These half-hour teach­ing ses­sions make up the bulk of the un­struc­tured time that Phyl­lis has. But far from burnout, Phyl­lis is en­er­getic and the long frame of her body moves as lightly as a cari­bou across the tun­dra.

We be­gin and close ev­ery dance prac­tice with Bhumi Pranam. Phyl­lis ex­plains that Bhumi means earth and pranam means to bow. “Es­sen­tially,” she tells us, while hold­ing her el­bows out to the sides, and her hands in the open­ing mu­dra with baby fin­gers pointed sky­wards, “you’re mak­ing a sa­cred of­fer­ing of the dance and ask­ing for the Earth’s per­mis­sion to stamp your feet on Her.”

I didn’t know what de­vo­tion was un­til I went to the ashram. The word evoked mem­o­ries of churches I’d vis­ited while back­pack­ing in Europe, Chris­tian cas­tles and coun­try women in dark clothes track­ing pray­ers on the small pol­ished beads of a rosary. It was also lumped in with learn­ing the Lord’s Prayer and scrip­tures pho­net­i­cally and by rote the way I had as a child at church: “Our Fa­ther Who aren’t in heaven, Hal­lowe’en be Thy name...” The word and its as­so­ci­ated images oc­cu­pied the same un­heated space in a dusty stor­age cup­board of my mind.

Dur­ing the years I was forced to go to church as a child and teenager, I never came to think of my­self as be­long­ing to Christ or to the Church. I never un­der­stood the con­nec­tion be­tween what hap­pened on Sun­day morn­ings in the cold stone build­ing at the cor­ner of West­min­ster Av­enue and Mary­land Street in Win­nipeg and the rest of my life. Read­ing the Bi­ble was like read­ing a text in a sec­ond or third lan­guage, pro­nounc­ing words with­out mean­ing.

I see now that the church-hop­ping I’d done as a young adult was part of a search for be­long­ing, though I didn’t think about be­long­ing un­til I sensed it deeply in an­other. Sit­ting with the old­timers, the grand­moth­ers and grand­fa­thers of Earl’s tribal home­land, I felt their be­long­ing to the place they lived and cher­ished. I felt some­thing sim­i­lar in the swamis and long-term res­i­dents at the ashram. Bear­ing wit­ness to their be­long­ing stirred up a long­ing within.

Dur­ing one of the ashram even­ing classes, I’m asked to bring to mind an image of the Di­vine. To my sur­prise, I see the bo­real for­est, a 1.5 bil­lion-acre god­dess with shiny lake-blue medal­lions on her thick spruce coat. Her skin is the great wetlands, alive with mi­gra­tory birds and dark with sun- and snow­burn, north­ern lights pink, green and fire­fly yel­low streak her blue-black hair. The moon and sun are her eyes.

Each of us is en­cour­aged to have our own ex­pe­ri­ence of who or what the Di­vine is. From this, I un­der­stand that each of our ways of prac­tis­ing de­vo­tion can be unique. From karma yoga, I learn that this de­vo­tion can be ap­plied to ev­ery as­pect of life, to ev­ery choice and ac­tion. I think about how I can’t live with­out act­ing and no mat­ter what I eat, other lives must be sac­ri­ficed for mine. How then do I act? How do I hunt? Do I hunt?

When I try to ex­plain karma yoga and my con­fu­sion about hunt­ing to Earl over the phone, he gets de­fen­sive and asks me, “Are you sure that ashram place isn’t some kind of cult? And if you stop hunt­ing are you gonna be af­ter me to stop too?”

“No,” I said, “Not at all. They’re help­ing me to see that I need a new ap­proach, a new at­ti­tude. It means I might need to take a break from hunt­ing while I think this through.”

One of the ashram teach­ers said, “The se­cret of de­vo­tion is to find what fo­cuses your mind and keeps it in­trigued, real, en­gaged and in­volved.” She said this, but she also said that it’s hard to ex­plain be­cause the lan­guage of the heart is be­yond words.

When I re­turn to Thomp­son and am home alone, I do the Bhumi Pranam and dance the Mother of Light in the liv­ing room and back yard. With­out know­ing how or ex­actly what it means, I get this idea that I want to Bhumi Pranam my life.

Re­vis­it­ing my child­hood af­ter the ashram visit, I find de­vo­tion was there. It was the woman who served steam­ing cups of tea and brought around trays of cook­ies in the hall af­ter church. She had large soft arms, glasses that made her eyes look like an in­sect, and never a stern face. She was every­one’s grand­mother.

It was soli­tary vis­its to the con­cen­tra­tion of shrubs in an in­ner­sub­ur­ban park across the street from our bun­ga­low. Heubach Park

had no play struc­tures, benches or paths, and was rarely vis­ited by the peo­ple of our neigh­bour­hood. It was an oval field of mowed grass with two small mounds that I thought of as hills and clus­ters of tall shrubs. My dad used the flat land be­tween the shrubs and hills to hit golf balls af­ter sup­per on sum­mer nights. My mom would pack a peanut but­ter and ba­nana sand­wich for my six-year-old self and I’d go to the park alone. Into a crowd of shrubs, I crawled or crouch-walked. In­side, the ground was bare earth, dry leaves and twigs with spa­ces be­tween trunks and roots to sit. Around and above me were walls and a roof made of branches, leaves, spi­der webs, wind and bugs. It was a child-size for­est, my hid­den place. Con­cealed within, I could see my house through the eye-shaped win­dows of wo­ven branches, hear a dog bark­ing down the street and the soft sounds of birds call­ing across the park. Once a deer ap­peared and grazed on the grass nearby. She must have smelled me be­cause she looked up and her warm eye linked with mine, like the an­swer to an un­spo­ken prayer.

De­vo­tion was my mom’s daily prepa­ra­tion of pa­per-bag lunches and hot sup­pers. Her sound is a knife finely chop­ping fresh herbs on a cut­ting board, run­ning wa­ter over let­tuce at the kitchen sink, the metal of oven racks be­ing re­ar­ranged, the purr and vi­bra­tion of her elec­tric mixer. Her scent is broth sim­mer­ing on the stove and freshly baked sour­dough bread cool­ing on the counter. Her taste is chokecherry syrup on home­made waf­fles and saska­toon berry pie from our af­ter­noon har­vest.

De­vo­tion was my dad’s re­sponse to my mom say­ing in a seized-up voice, “The bridge ladies must have thrown one of my sil­ver tea­spoons in the garbage.” With­out flinch­ing or say­ing a word, he walked out of the house to the trash bins in the back lane. He re­trieved two large bags of food scraps and used nap­kins, sorted through the con­tents with bare hands, search­ing for the spoon that would turn up later in the kitchen.

It was Grammy Pearl’s hands and long nails scratch­ing my back un­til all the ten­sions I held in­side melted like spring ice freed into creek wa­ter. Af­ter she died I wanted to die too. I never told any adults about these feel­ings, but I wrote about them in long let­ters to my best friend, Natalie. She an­swered in let­ters and sad songs. She made me tape record­ings of her­self play­ing the pi­ano and sing­ing “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins and Led Zep­plin’s “Fool in the Rain.”

If any­one else missed Grammy Pearl, I couldn’t tell. Many years later, when I asked my mom about grief for her mom’s death, she said, “I al­ways speak to her in the rasp­berry patch.”

In au­tumn, I pick bog cran­ber­ries near Paint Lake with Earl’s aun­tie. When the berries are ripe, they look like red jew­els set on cush­ions of sphag­num moss. We fol­low the berries off the trail to the places where the fruit grows thick, colour­ing the land like blood­ied snow. The size of corn ker­nels, these berries need to be picked one at a time. I lie down on the moss and col­lect each fruit be­tween in­dex fin­ger and thumb. Be­neath spruce branches, we breathe in the scent of thin soil and wet poplar leaves. Fill­ing a bowl takes hun­dreds of small repet­i­tive move­ments, like pick­ing up seed beads with a nee­dle. From these har­vests, I make cran­berry waf­fles for my house­mates and cran­berry oat­meal cook­ies to share with Earl’s fam­ily. They’re de­li­cious mixes of sweet and tart, for­est and town, ances­tors of the land and ances­tors of my blood.

Part of camp is vis­it­ing with our camp neigh­bours. Earl is a mas­ter ban­nock chef and we al­ways keep some for the birds, whiskey jacks we named Ma­m­as­catch and Ochemin. They catch the scent of wood-stove smoke or the scent of Earl and me, which is also wood­stove smoke. They perch on the tips of our snow­shoes that stand ver­ti­cally in the snow out­side the cabin. Or they hover in flight be­fore the win­dow on the wooden door, the tiny black lakes of their eyes search­ing. Then they lift back into spruce branches while Earl stands un­mov­ing on the stoop, his out­stretched arm par­al­lel to the earth, his bare hand a buf­fet of fresh bread.

In spring, when the mi­gra­tory song­birds be­gin to ap­pear in the morn­ing sky, we haul bags of bird­seed into camp from the hard­ware store in town. Earl spreads it in the clear­ing in front of the cabin. Finches, war­blers, waxwings and spar­rows drop in hun­gry and ex­hausted from ul­tra-marathon mi­gra­tions. They ar­rive from as far away as Mex­ico, Colom­bia and Venezuela, pro­pelled by wings as small as a tod­dler’s hand wav­ing good­bye. They ar­rive un­til there are more hop­ping colours on the frozen mud than I had known lived in the for­est. We sit on the front stoop and watch.

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