THIS is an admission of guilt. It is that, and something more. I have hoped it might be something more—a yellow light, perhaps, glowing briefly where a rambling path joins a highway. Not an alarming red light, just a little yellow light suggesting a moment's reflection to others who may be ambling up behind me.
My confession is that I have lived on in this place for almost three decades, not knowing that where I am is my country. My Country !
I am ashamed. I didn’t know I had a country. I knew the name of the place as a whole was Canada and that I had been in it all the time, but I never once thought about it as my country or tried to compute the actual relationship between us. I had no feeling about it, as a country. Nobody tried to drill it into me with a club. I just kept on being here, that’s all.
I played in its fields, hunted in its woods, swam in its creeks, rambled over its roads and hills. I sat on the banks of a hundred streams, and fish got themselves caught on my lazy hook if they felt like it. Nobody ever came to me when I sat there and ordered me to state the latitude and longitude of my country, or tried to X-ray me for proof of adequate patriotism simmering within. I could sit there all the time and never have to wonder where I was.
When my parents wanted me to start learning, they took me to a school, and somebody else there started showing me how to do things. They told me everything I wanted to know and everything I needed to know besides. Those people worked on me for years, trying to fix it so I wouldn’t be a total botch. Maybe they told me I had a country too. I must have forgotten.
AT FIRST, I lived in a house in a beautiful apple valley in the western mountains. It was low and white, and had a big verandah which always smelled sweet inside because the squirrels had the eaves filled up with plums. I thought that house possessed some kind of magic. From a distance it seemed to be built right onto the mountain, but the mountain always moved back before you got there. The house had a yard full of fruit, and you could reach out the back door and get an apple from a big tree.
I lived in two or three places of magic and beauty like that out in those mountains. It was easy and wonderful living there. I know I have hoped to return some time.
I know now that those places are part of my personal country, and to it I am both spiritually betrothed and physically indebted.
There is, in a northern town, a little brown house with pine trees in front of it. I had my twelfth birthday party under those trees, and that same day a certain yellow-haired maiden swore fidelity to me. Ten years later, in other parts, her father gave me a job, mostly on account of those first things.
That, place was surrounded by oak and maple copses full of winding paths and squirrels. Wild licorice, rabbits, and hawthorne bushes abounded ; and in the spring the fields were blue crocus
carpets. There I first acquired respect for nature and the four-square outlook on life from a man who was born to be an idol of youth. He helped us build a cabin one summer and called it the Happy Hunter’s Lodge. I could go to it now. It’s on a creek, near a big water elm that bends over the water.
No one seemed to own that creek. Nobody stopped us from swimming in it, or sleeping on its mossy banks under the trees in all that great air which filled with bird song in the mornings. Our acquisition of it was so unquestioned that no one worried about the answer. . .
I was sorry to leave that place, but there was plenty ahead. The fortunate arrangement went on, this arrangement of being here and having all this and heaven too, all this earth through which to scuff my unhobbled and unheeding boots.
I REMEMBER how my father stood that day looking at the remains of our house and belongings, how hopeless he looked, as though he too were burnt out; and then how, as one man, that town fell to and built my speechless father a new house within two weeks.
No one had to worry at that place. Your trouble was only as big as your neighbors found it to be, and the doctor knew every adenoid by name. Whoever came or left was showered with gifts. If somebody was born it was the same, and if somebody died the whole place stopped work. Weddings, anniversaries, charity bees—that town didn’t seem happy unless it had something for which to plan. A woman there gave me music lessons for nothing because she liked my face, she said. Things like that. . .
OVER an indolent river, too shallow for commerce, there stands a little wooden bridge which I cherish most of all, I think. It is a most unstrategical bridge, yet I know now that I would stand like a guardian Horatius to preserve it as the symbol of a man without a country, as a gateway into that territory. I lived in a house near by.
From this weathered bridge I have taken the three steps, into manhood, marriage, and ambition. Here my embryo plans of conquest grew with the seasons. These mossy railings have absorbed the salt of death, the warmth of love, and held the tie of my adventurous craft. The river has echoed the yo-hallo of brothers and friends. In short, under this bridge water has passed.
The desire of finally returning and establishing my foundation there has become irrevocable.
I ask myself sudden questions. I begin to think like this.
Well, I have not become so debauched with freedom or drugged with the pollen of my rustic retreat that my senses refuse to grapple with the seeming fantasy of land-gobbling giants drooling about the modern world. And I can believe that inclusion on their menu of the terrain bequeathed to me, would be more than grim. Much less a fantasy than hoping to slide through from crib to crypt without a fight, without a struggle to justify one’s existence. No other generation has sidetracked the challenge when it has come.
So I have said, well, it looks like this is your time, mister. So come clean—do you really want to fight for your country? And don’t kid yourself. So I thought straight about it, and that’s how I discovered I had a country. I never dreamed how my country amounted to so many things, or that I could feel the way I do about it. But I see how it is now.
Whether or not I have known this to be the place, the time has been lived, the growing-in is past, the fact is, if, after all this time, this is not my country, I shall never have one. Everything I have had and want is here. This is the place.
This is the place, though I had never planned on making an issue of the fact. This is my country, though I have often squandered its gifts and cursed its name. And I want to fight, if not for the debt of the past, if not to qualify myself for the pleasure, safety, peace, and independence which alone have constituted my personal plans for the future, then just to cleanse my system.
I suppose I could lose myself in the Arctic Circle, or change my name to Patski McChang-lo and entomb myself in some homeless trainper plying the southern trades, until the shooting is over. But even if that wasn’t against my own will, it still wouldn’t be a solution. I know I would come crawling back here some day.
And so, for this place and this myriad of things -the mountain house, the fish, the man who was a Happy Hunter, yesterday’s freedom I will fight. For the spot by the bridge, my home, my fortune of tomorrow ~ I will fight.
Most of all I will fight for the fortunate arrangement that has let me be—free to soar above men to fame, build a house by a bridge, or just to sit and fish.
I DON’T know if this is patriotism or not. I didn’t get it in a book. It’s something I didn’t expect to understand or experience, a little extra emotion and logic come to life. It isn’t fervor, and it isn’t servility. It’s just knowing suddenly how I stand on this matter, and why.
Yes, I am glad this is your time, mister, or you might have gone on, grown rich off this amiable land, and been allotted your last six feet of it without ever knowing you could feel this way about it.
I want to fight, though I’m not a fighting man. In the name of my country, which never brags enough, I look forward to taking my cut at the malignant cancer that is eating its way over the earth toward it, though my stomach quakes like muskeg when I think of a bayonet. I’m not by instinct a killer. I haven’t held a rifle for years, and the only thing bigger than a rabbit that I’ve killed is a young buck deer.
The deer was running free in the woods at the time. He didn't seem to belong to anyone. There was nobody with him to say. It wasn’t a very difficult shot. The deer was facing the other way. He was so absorbed in his own interests, sure of his liberty and immunity there in the woods, that I got almost on top of him. The bullet killed him so quickly that he fell, still thinking he was free.
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