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.