BRUCE HUTCHISON’S UNKNOWN CANADA
It lies, says this noted editor and author, not in the cities or in man’s institutions, but in the land and the people’s dumb love of it. A moving testament to an unperceived Canada each Canadian must discover for himself
MY LIFE FORKED when I purchased some acres of an old farm outside Victoria and, 25 miles away, a cabin beside a mountain lake. From then on I had to walk two diverging trails and follow two different trades at the expense of both.
In those days, in the best of times and the best of countries, a poor man could easily buy real estate but, under a law unrecognized by any legislature, he could not truly own it by mere exchange of money and documents. Real ownership, or rather the brief lease granted for a lifetime, must be established by more binding title deeds, by his own labor, by the immersion, almost the premature burial of his body in the earth.
Once I had driven my preliminary fence posts (some of them still standing beneath giant trees planted at the same time) these upright shafts of pungent cedar penetrated at least the outer crust of reality. They registered, like exclamation marks on a printed page, a decision all the more irrevocable because I did not suspect or understand it. When I planted a garden, built more cabins beside the lake and cut my firewood of alder in the swamp I was beginning to master a second trade more engrossing and certainly more useful than the first. And while I made a good pretence of interest in journalism and politics, at times almost believing it myself, I was wedded to the rich earth and the teeming forest of Vancouver Island.
This article is excerpted from Bruce Hutchison’s Western Windows, to be published this month by Longmans Canada Ltd.
The business of newspapers was done with my clumsy left hand. My skillful right gripped a doublebitted axe, a crosscut saw or a spade. Various employers assumed that they had bought all my energies and never guessed, in their innocence, that I was taking their money by fraud. As the heroine in the old melodrama of my young days used to confess, 1 was living a lie. Despite my bungling attempt to contain it, the lie soon leaked into my daily columns.
It would be gratifying to say that I refused lucrative jobs in distant cities from lofty motives and natural modesty, but in fact I acted from a mixture of selfishness and cowardice. I could not bear to give up my comfortable, humdrum life and I dared not face either the city’s turmoil or the competition of its abler journalists. It was so much easier to stand on the sidelines, to peer through the trees at the men who carried the nation’s burden, to denounce them safely in print and then to sneak into the swamp where they could never find me.
Thus the deception of my double life continued until the feckless habits formed in youth were too fixed and cosy to be broken. This made for happiness, not for good journalism. But, needing money to support my private luxuries, I practised enough public journalism to prevent me ever becoming a good farmer or woodsman. The jack of two trades was master of neither. Now I am too old to care, and no man could have been luckier or happier in his surroundings, in half a dozen friendships (a high total as this world goes) and in wealth not measurable at the bank. / continued on page 97
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BRUCE HUTCHISON continued from page 15
“This wealth man can acquire only with
hands and senses”
continued from page 15
Perhaps some things of value can be bought with money but, by the time you have the money to buy them, it is usually too late for their enjoyment. 1 have known numerous millionaires, among them several fine men, uncorrupted by money, yet few were happy and fewer even healthy. The fable of King Midas tells an awful and everlasting verity.
Any man who lacks the golden touch may speak disparagingly of wealth out of mere envy, as perhaps 1 do. Yet any man with average intelligence and luck should have amassed, in his age, a store of secret valuta that no one else sees or wants.
My own wealth, if I must tell the truth for once, is much larger than the tax officials suppose. The unfailing income from the forest, the capital gains of massive woodpiles, well concealed near the swamp and thriftily hedged against inflation, the unearned increment of a vegetable garden enriched annually with manure from my neighbor’s barnyard, the bullion of daffodils multiplying under the Saanich oaks, the securities of spring blossom always at par. the goldstandard currency of dawn and sunset — these are assets readily negotiable at any bank where the manager appreciates sound collateral.
Message on a mountain
If a man were honest in filling out his tax return he would admit such extra dividends, all more valuable than the inferior earnings that seem to interest the state. On the other hand, an honest man could rightly claim as deductible operating expenses the time wasted in reading the state’s documents, the parliamentary Hansard and the speeches of all the suffocating official bores.
If the Department of National Revenue should happen to discover my real bank account doubtless it would send me to jail. For I and all countrymen have amassed more treasure than we deserve or can possibly spend.
The valiant yellow banners and the wholesome smell of skunk cabbages in February, the first purple catkins dripping like wine from the March alders, the loon’s eerie cry on the silent lake, the crackle of deer’s footsteps and the insect buzz in the parched summer woods, the corn growing in the hot nights, the autumnal grin of pumpkin, squash and marrow, the drumbeat of winter rain, the moan of wind, the screech of torn branches and the hiss of brush fires in the snow — these are property enough for any man, but he cannot buy them with his chequebook, only with his hands and senses.
Like all men who know' the outdoors, 1 have amassed still more precious assets. Riding in the high Rockies, far above timber line, I have seen some things unsuspected by the traveler in train, automobile or airplane unrecorded by the camera, unwritten on the tourist advertisements.
Up there the air is clean, the type legible and printed boldly, in basic English, but you cannot read it until
you have climbed slowly, day by day, through caverns measureless to man (or to Coleridge) and risked your neck on many a slippery precipice. And even when you have read that gigantic typography you cannot reproduce it or convey its import to other men.
The message of the mountains is
always confidential, cryptic and brief. One of their communications, a staggering headline, was written on my heart, like Calais on Queen Bloody Mary’s, but I shall not try to translate it for the present reader. Enough to state the bald facts.
Fog, rain and snow had kept us battened down in camp for two days
and nights. At last a narrow crack in the sky persuaded us to goad our unwilling horses up a vertical shale slide to a bare ridge of rock where we could hardly see 10 feet ahead and the clouds lay above, below and around us like wet concrete. Then, for half a minute, no more, the wind struck from the w'est and almost blew us from our saddles. The sun bored through the concrete, the clouds were torn to fluttering rags of blue and
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BRUCE HUTCHISON continued
“See the old world and you return more Canadian than ever”
white, the valley of gilded autumn poplar at our feet was emptied instantly of mist. Sky, earth, mountain and forest, rock and tree, were convulsed like the colors in a child's kaleidoscope. The whole planet (how else can 1 say it?) turned into whirling, bubbling, molten substance as on the day of creation — a sight too
dizzy for human eyes to look upon.
As suddenly as they had split, the clouds closed again and we toiled blindly downward through them all day to pitch our camp in darkness under a sky now spangled with stars, beside a cliff of gleaming silver. The Rockies had written their message and sealed the envelope. In all my
later journeys 1 could never reopen it.
Nor could I read the message until I have traveled in more distant lands. The tonsured English meadows, the geometrical French fields, the tidy, upright Alpine farms taught me the essential difference separating the only two kinds of men whatever their race or color, the outdoor men and the
men of civilization, the trail men and the street men, forever separate.
In Europe the earth is domesticated and its owners with it. In America, not far from any town, the world is still close to us and makes the stable weather, the fixed matrix of our spirit, whether we know it or not. We know it, all right, when we go abroad and see in Europe a continent long tamed, a people truly civilized, as we are not. Europe’s land is a garden under man’s tillage. Here, outside our few urban strongholds, it is a wilderness which we may ravish but cannot tame, and some of us are not quite tamed yet, cither, though we shall be in due time.
A Canadian must see the old world before he comprehends the new. Invariably he will come home more Canadian than ever, and for myself the return to my swamp and the whispered welcome of the forest seems like release from a luxurious prison. That self-discovery is worth all the cost and exasperation of foreign travel.
Besides, to most urban Canadians their land, except for the tourist centres and the paved highways, is as foreign and unknown as the mountains of Tibet. Once I drove from Halifax to Victoria, with detours of some 20,000 miles, and realized, in the fishing outports of Newfoundland, or among Indians up north, that during the previous 50 years of countless trips across Canada 1 had never seen it at all. Not many Canadians will see it beyond the pavement. Not many will suspect the distinct local thoughtways, or even the varied accents of voice and mind, that make this a bundle of separate nations loosely tied together by a legal constitution and tightly tied by nonlcgal contracts stronger than law.
But the trans-Atlantic cultural gulf has been closing fast, America is becoming civilized. It is a shaking statistical fact, for example, though unmentioned in the government’s bluebooks, that many children now growing up in Canada have never slept under canvas on hemlock boughs or cooked a trout on the end of a willow twig.
The underprivileged generation of affluence, traveling in a costly automobile, may get no closer to Canada
than a public roadside camp, with hot running water and firewood cut at the taxpayers’ expense, and will go home in the pathetic belief that it has been camping. If J had any influence on national policy, the state would put all Canadian children in a real camp for at least a month every summer. That would be the best possible investment in health, sanity and true culture. It might even stave off a revolution against the Great Society whose beneficiaries are beginning to find its imperfections already, as any old wilderness man could have told them in advance.
We seek the meaning of Canada in the cities, their theatres, museums, art galleries, concert halls and nightclubs. We spend huge sums from the government’s treasury to create a native culture, as if we could buy it like instant coffee and cold drinks out of a slot machine. We build still larger cities in the queer new faith, replacing the old religion, that somehow size, if sufficiently large, will unlock the final secret and reconcile God's ways to man.
1 have always held — a poor theory but my own — that the nation is nourished in mind as well as body not mainly by the government, the school system or any man-made institution, but by the land and the people’s dumb love of it. There is the true unifying force, more binding than parliament, constitution and all the work of the anxious little bureaucrats who try to preserve the nation with statistics, slide rules and computers.
In the cities: revolt
For this theory I have no proof, of course. The youngest assistant professor or bearded CBC producer will overwhelm me with unanswerable argument. Nevertheless. 1 could subpoena some impressive witnesses if the case were taken to court.
The public would not recognize them, however. They are obscure and nameless men seldom given to speech — dairy farmers on the cool evening porches of Ontario, wheat farmers on the hot Saskatchewan plain, loggers in a British Columbia bunkhouse, trappers in their winter cabins, cowboys perched on a Cariboo corral. Concerning such men, Washington Irving wrote that they might be rough but they could never be vulgar. 1 have found also that they are rarely stupid or ignorant, for they have a direct knowledge of actual things, of weather, soil, growth, animals and the common creaturehood of all life.
Often, though speaking in monosyllables, they are more informative and interesting than educated men because they have mastered their natural environment by accepting it on its own terms and wearing it as comfortably as an old boot, while the city dweller is always in revolt against the synthetic environment of his own making and his information is secondhand. He longs to escape and commonly escapes into a more expensive apartment, a cell more securely locked. The rustic needs no escape because he is not imprisoned.
At any rate. 1 have learned more from Jim Riviere under canvas in the Rockies, from Ted Helsett in the
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quagmire trails of the North Thompson or Rene Hance on the windy Chilcotin range than several prime ministers could teach me. These communications were off the record and if I printed them here they would not be understood outside the separate worlds where language has different meanings. Men of this breed use a vocabulary untranslatable unless it is illuminated by camp fires, moonlight and a certain amount of common danger.
In the cities, the businessmen’s clubs and Ottawa’s parliamentary corridors, I sometimes despair of the nation’s future. One day in the outdoors, with outdoor men, convinces me that the nation is safe. Surveyed from the saddle instead of the armchair, our democratic process looks vigorous enough to survive all the organized efforts to save it.
However that may be, no man can understand society until he has stood at a distance and seen the thing whole from a neutral point, above the city’s fumes and clatter. No man can appreciate a cooked meal, civilization’s first gift, until he has been long hungry, a warm bed until he has been cold, a lamp and an open door until he has been lost in the woods, a friend until he needs one, or a woman’s love until he has felt the touch of loneliness. After much misery, and only then, his soul breaks out of the shadow and is riveted permanently to the substance.
The iand, always the land!
There was small misery in my experience but sufficient to give me a crumb of the substance, to tell me what better men had endured in this land. The land, always the land! And when you grow older the land seems to grow richer and fairer while the cities, swollen in size and power, diminish in your eyes. The westward traveler glances back to find the highest towers sinking below the prairie rim.
These arc no more than the cranky speculations of an old man who has just returned from a big city with civilization’s latest scars. In another mood I might argue the opposite case with equal conviction. But in any mood 1 now understand, with certain information mercifully hidden from the young, that all humans must travel alone through city or wilderness. Only the vehicles change from age to age. We rode a cay use not long ago. Today we ride a jet plane and soon will ride a spacecraft, but we know no better than our grandfathers where we are going. Indeed, we may know less than they who at least had a confident sense of direction and faith in ultimate arrival somewhere. Perhaps, if a dangerous heresy may be ventured, it was not a fortunate day for our species when Darwin politely ushered God out of the universe, Marx invented the fiction of Economic Man and the state erected its pantheon of new gods with plastic hearts and brains of cunning clockwork.
Denied the old certainties, we must take such knowledge as we can find around us. It is not much but, so far
BRUCE HUTCHISON continued
“Without work and
as it goes is reliable. We know that sap rises in the spring, buds open, leaves unfold and drop in autumn to rot and make the new soil on which ail men live. Snow falls, frost splits the rock, and the mountains will slide perpetually until, as in its beginning the earth is flat once more and lifeless. But for a little time the snow will
suffering there can
melt again, a drop of moisture will ooze from some tiny crevice, hesitating between the eastern, western and northern watersheds, a brook will seek its ancient channel, and long after man has gone the great rivers of Canada will move, unseen, to the three ocea ns.
This much we know on the outer
be no satisfaction”
fringes of truth, whose hinterland has been shut and double-barred forever — enough to tell us at least why our civilization is sick. It is sick because man has separated himself from the earth and will never be healed unless he rediscovers the flowing springs and green nutriments of his life.
I have no doubt that the state,
perhaps no better and no worse than the private managers, will soon manage every aspect of society and solve all its exterior problems with neat blueprints and wise regulations, but even if the management is perfect it will not touch the interior crisis of mankind w'hich must be solved, if solved at all, within man’s solitary skull.
The state’s management will succeed, in fact, only if, freeing man from insensate labor and society’s cruel injustice, it gives him the chance to free himself from the state and find a different sort of labor, another test and a higher prize elsewhere. More and more the state abrogates our old inalienable rights, but it will certainly fail altogether if it abrogates our right to work, to suffer and to risk danger, each in his own fashion.
History’s march is littered with the bones of rich nations and proud empires that lost their vital juices and collapsed before a handful of illiterate barbarians because they enjoyed work and welcomed danger. Without work, suffering and danger there can be no satisfaction at the end. Without sharing there can be no wealth. Without sacrifice for others, no rewards. Without self-discipline, no freedom.
Such stuffy platitudes will be heard in any Canadian Club speech but they are quite true and highly relevant to the present human situation if you examine them candidly. Hence, 1 foresee, and eagerly await, the day when man, fat with profit and bored with idleness, will rebel against enforced leisure, burst out of his upholstered jail house, walk barefoot on the earth and paint a picture, write a poem or build a cabin with his own hands, refusing any pay. On a small but increasing settle he has begun to revolt already, as you can see every weekend in the city’s lemming exodus to the country. At the peak of the social revolution the signs of counter-revolution are encouraging. We must be patient. The full process will take time. As Chaucer put it long ago, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’’ We have not learned it vet but we arc slowly learning. ★