The slow dawns of winter wake us gently, the twilight place between light and not-light stretching long and spreading thick over the valley. These days I become awake in stages; with the first rooster calls, with the dogs beginning to shift, with the light that begins as a detectable difference emitted by the mountains and grows undeniable as I lay ensconced in wool and heavy breathing bodies of various species. On a milder morning, I can buy some time. The pigs sleep in easily, the goats and horses and cows have everything they need. But when the cold has seeped in through the log walls and the sky is clear, I know I need to push through all instinct and get out with the light, to get cold bellies churning with sunflower seeds and alfalfa, to turn rubber water tubs over and jump on their distorted bottoms until the inches of ice break away from the walls, to fill them again with cold water that comes up the hydrant from the deep earth, to rub down shivering goats and encourage half-frozen chickens into the meagre sunlight.
There is an aliveness that is close to death here; maybe I can explain it like this – it is easier to feel alive but also easier to die. A moment’s unawareness around the 700lb boar. An old well no one knows about opening up under the cows as they graze. Axes, fires, -40 degrees Celcius. Being alone. The margins of error are smaller, and they come at you with a sudden sobriety where you say, whoa. That was a close one. And then you carry on as normal because – what else can you do?
These are the good old days, as my brother likes to say – a play on how our Japanese-Canadian grandmother talks about her childhood during the Great Depression and WWII years in Vancouver and in internment camps.But these are our good old days, as transient as they are overconfident. Hers contained moments of sweetness in a daily uncertainty; for us, these are the moments (years? Decades?) we have left to soak in the absurd abundance all around us, despite the hair-raising awareness that it simply cannot last.
We are facing the end of an era, the collapse of the empire of humanity. Finally it is part of our everyday conversations, the news we see on our pocket-sized handheld doom devices. But it isn’t here, not here, yet. We have all this bounty and all this destruction and we hold it all in our tiny fists, in our pale palms, and we pray for some kind of redemption as we go about our small, mundane, miraculous lives.
Three months ago – the good old days, the static before the storm. Three months is twelve weeks, the time it takes (incidentally) to grow a decently sized heritage-hybrid meat chicken for slaughter. I found these paragraphs in my computer notes the other day, amazed that when I wrote it I had no actual idea of what was already in motion. It’s always been easy to hold my own fragility in this place, to see in slow motion all that could unravel in a moment’s mistake. Easier still to marvel at the massive house of cards that is our global system as it ticks along busily just a little to the south and infinitely beyond; that extraordinary coordination of need and greed, beauty and horror and tiny plastic parts.
It was a hope for a slower, more connected life – and a reasonable dose of anxious prepper energy – that brought my family to this bit of Delgamuuxw House Territory in the Kispiox Valley, in a north-western pocket of British Columbia. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into (isn’t that always the case?) but at this moment my gratitude is bright enough to break my heart wide open.
In February, at work and at home and on highways and police lines, we were consumed by the events and narratives unfolding as the Wet’suwet’en and their supporters were raided and removed from their camps and homes on the Yintah, for the second time in two years, by elaborate numbers of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This, for the continued construction of the CGL pipeline meant to move fracked gas from the northeast to the ports and across the sea to a foundering market. Solidarity blockades across the country disrupted the movement of goods and people across traditional territories, colonial governments were forced to negotiate directly with hereditary chiefs, court cases were launched, countless pots of soup and boxes of donuts were eaten on rail road tracks, camps were built and dismantled and built again, LAND BACK banners fluttered in the wind and the world, to me, stood still. What could be bigger than this moment?
There are variations on a meme, in which, essentially, the Wet’suwet’en say, “shut down Canada!” and then SARS-coronavirus-2 says, “Hold my beer.”
Now we are navigating this second massive disruption of this still-young Roman calendrical year from our small and beautiful network of communities. The snow is melting under brilliant sunshine, but the nights dip well below freezing. The pastures reveal themselves, a moonscape of yellow-brown.
On the family homestead, life ticks along as normal, our more-than-human kin indifferent to the sudden shift in the world beyond the fences: The horses and cows rotate between fields, eating round bale hay we roll out on drought-damaged soil to mulch it with the waste and fertilise it with their manure.The pigs alternate between sleeping in piles and ranging the woods and fields, arguing loudly, and wrestling for barnyard supremacy. The goats crawl over lumber piles and old wood stoves to get in with the bull and steal his food – one lady goat, in seemingly perpetual heat, daringly romances my large, predatory dog. The chickens hatch improbable chicks from eggs we’ve given up on, or work their way up the porch steps and into the kitchen to peck their crops full of cat kibble. The seedlings reach for light from their trays inside the log cabin windows, waiting for the moment we can chance a frost-free night and get them out to the greenhouse. The freezers are full of what we’ve lovingly dubbed Apocalypse Pork, something we’re grateful to be able to share with a few friends and neighbours. Next week, my brother and I will carve our way through a side of beef,
We’re isolated, for want of any other term, in a pod of three households (two off the farm but nearby in the valley); we gather a few days a week for meals and work bees. We also drive through a checkpoint at Kispiox Village, where the band has instated quarantine measures and is strongly discouraging non-locals from entering the community.
This thing we’re all facing together is amplifying everything – everything – to a deafening decibel. Everything that doesn’t work, and everything that does. Honest mistakes, bad timing, devastating inequalities, nefarious decisions, kindness, ingenuity, lucky guesses, compassionate policy, system failures, growth and transformation, all our collective grief – everything we need to change, and everything we cannot or should not. Now, more than ever, I’m comforted by a kind of solidity under my feet knowing that you’re all out there, caring for your corners of of this shared existence, dreaming your dreams, adapting your walk, carrying on with the projects that still work and abandoning the ones that are no longer possible, holding your hope and your fear with equal reverence, weaving the network of energy that emits from each of our hearts and connects to every living thing. Remembering to eat, getting some sleep. Working flat out, or taking advantage of an opportunity to slow way down. We knew this would happen; we just didn’t know what this was, and we didn’t know how soon it would come.
I think of you all as I muck around in the ice and mud, scratching furry chins and filling water buckets, reminding myself to breathe when I catch myself holding my breath. Hang on, sweet friends (and in equal measure, let go) – we are tipping over the edge together. I am sending you love and fresh, cold air. I am willing my heart to be big enough to hold all the grief and all the joy. I am waiting to see how each of us translates this blip on the geological timescale into our own small bit of poetry, prayer, communion, or alchemy. Stay well out there. We need you.