Creative Nonfiction Prize
Cornelia Hoogland, "Sea Level"
All this week, we're publishing the five stories selected as finalists for the 2011-2012 Creative Nonfiction Prize.
In this entry by Cornelia Hoogland, a nature trip offers a paradigm shift for those willing to accept it.
Humchitt throttles the motor. The boat drifts. Wolves are everywhere, we take turns seeing them. “There’s one,” and “There, look there.” But it’s only driftwood the shape and colour of wolves. Our eyes scan low bushes, trees.
Somebody says, “I get it. Totem poles—it makes sense. Animal shapes are everywhere.”
Humchitt boats us to his favourite duck hunting spot. On a granite rock face fifteen metres high, drawings in ochre. “My ancestors,” he says. A figure of a person outlined in sienna dots. A figure with his hands raised. We’re all quiet.
The sun goes behind a cloud and—like a function in Photoshop—the band of trees at sea level grows intensely green. The scrim of trees diffracts the light; the water darkens. We’re looking for wolves but we end up seeing colour.
“We want to see wolves,” we say.
Humchitt knows where to look—but in the narrow channel he loses the satellite reception for his GPS, and we turn around.
We stand on the dock and look out on our third day in northern British Columbia. We’re a small group of people with hopes of seeing wolves who fish, or at least, hearing them. Living on the borderland between sea and land has turned these West Coast wolves into expert fishermen as well as hunters.
The dock makes a knocking sound, the deck boards give. Water sloshes against the boom just enough to let us know it’s wooden grace we’re walking on. One of the group members hoped for better cell reception on this promontory, away from the trees, but our personal devices are pretty dead out here. Out here? We look around. Channel of water, an island, and on the other side, Bella Bella at the centre of four directions, and home of the Heiltsuk Nation. Trees, ocean, sky—extend as far as the eye. The only motors here are fitted to boats. Somebody notes how foreign this is. He tries to explain the almost human feelings that he has for construction-site trucks and cranes at rest.
A humpback swims into view.
“We’re on the Discovery Channel,” somebody shouts. Then quiet looking. The soundtrack: cello music. It’s not just a whale, it’s a whale moving through a body of water, mountains all around—the aperture widens. Vibrato.
Click go the cameras. Click click. Click click click.
Sooner or later, even for urbanites, it’s back to nature. Like dogs we need time outside. Brown earth. Biology. Hike up a hill, walk the river, go to where nature moves. We’re impatient for it to do something, speak. We want to poke it. Like William Blake who poked the sky with a stick and said, there it was—all around him, blue and full of oxygen.
“Was that a loon?” somebody asks. Twelve ears cock for sign, for meaning.
Water slaps the pillions that hold up the dock we’re standing on. Nature as a dock.
At the river we see evidence of wolves. “Watch where you step.” Wolf shit. Humchitt points to a salmon lying on the rocks.
“Where’s the head?” somebody asks.
“Wolves eat them. The brains,” Humchitt says, which makes us look again.
“They avoid parasites that way,” he says, “and get the most nutrition. The adults carry the salmon back to their dens. They feed their young and the rest of the salmon fertilizes the cedars and firs.”
When Humchitt tells us this, we look to the tops of the trees. A gaggle of people gaping at the long fingers of evergreen, stretching up, stretching impossibly high.
This spawn river is thick with returning salmon. Just when the forest animals need to fatten up for winter, the salmon arrive. Humchitt says there’s nothing more heartbreaking than a spawn river with no fish.
We look for animal tracks in the mud, try to identify them. Our rubber-boot-prints are everywhere. Somebody puts his foot on the body of a dead fish. He presses down. Flame-red roe gushes onto the black rock. Spill of jewels. The image sticks in our heads.
“The thing is,” says somebody, “I see this place as a screen. My first thought on coming here,” he waves his arm over the estuary, “is where to click. Like if I could mouse over it I’d know what to do, how to respond.”
Humchitt sits on a rock. We each find a rock or a log. Start to fidget. The rock’s too rough or cold or wet. Our limbs ache. We pull out something to eat. Later, back at the lodge, we argue. We’re vaguely dissatisfied but how can we be different than we are?
“I never went to Boy Scouts.”
“I slept in a tent, once, for half a night. I heard something and packed it in.”
“Does anybody walk?” one of us asks. “You know, like go for a walk?”
From behind his computer, somebody groans.
A chewed stick. Wolf? Ripe scat. Algae at the water’s edge. A snag of hair on a low branch. We wonder how to read them; the questions we could be asking. Questions even science doesn’t know to ask.
We feel more confident about ravens that are easy to see and hear. They circle above the pack, accounting for its members and checking out the latest kill, picking clean the bones.
Our neck muscles get a workout. Up is a new direction for us.
We wonder if the bits of nature (rocks, lichen, stars) would be ‘more,’ somehow, if they were indoors. In an art gallery. Fill up a white room with stone cairns, throw up special effects lighting. “No, no,” says the person who’s been taking the close-ups. “Context is everything.”
“We’re the strangers here,” says a person.
“C’mon,” says another, “we’re born into nature.”
“I was born in a hospital,” says the first person.
“You were born into light.”
We experiment. We arrange rocks, leaves, twigs into patterns.
“Pretty subtle,” says somebody, weighing a shell in his hand.
When we find a one-eyed Humbolt Squid washed up on shore (a truly dramatic blank slate of possibility, “deep” and “beautifully creepy” and “tantalizing,” are some of the ways we put it), we test the context theory. Somebody grabs hold of the creature and sets it here on kelp, there on rock, ‘til somebody else says “This is ridiculous.” We sit on our haunches and stare into the mystery of the squid’s one hugely evocative black eye.
The witch’s beard (Usnea lichen) draped over spruce branches acts like a dimmer switch. It’s so quiet we think we hear the sound Douglas-firs standing together make. We’re walking through the mossy woods on trails made by wolves—how old? Tens of thousands of years old? How many individual paws over how many seasons made this path?
This path made by wolves through the woods is the oldest artifact here. Put that in a gallery.
We keep thinking that we see something move.
We spend the afternoon on the intertidal zone making sculptures. Nike soles, rusted chain, nails and engine parts, rocks and seaweed, a strip of tattered flag. Somebody lines the dock railing with yellow maple leaves.
Our presence keeps the heron away, though we hear him in the Douglas-fir. His call has a serrated edge, unnervingly wild. Seagulls come and go.
The tide turns, starts to rise and pulls our sculptures apart. They collapse and scatter. A person shouts: “No! Don’t!” He runs for his camera and snaps what’s left into place, into permanence.
“Do you feel better now?” somebody asks him.
In the late afternoon the yellow heads of the flowers turn sunward. So do we. We sit in a row on a log and watch as the beach scrubs itself clean. When the show’s over, we clap.
This is not landscape, it is not outside us. We are in it. It is here and here and here. Inhaling and exhaling.
The trees say nothing. The wolves too are silent; they stay hidden. In the end, we talk less. It’s getting late.
Then—it’s like we remember the sense of touch. Then—it seems that somebody is always bending down, low to the ground, to pull a deer fern through her hand, or stroke lichen, or grab a length of cedar to bunch at the nose.
On the edge of a hemlock and fir forest that marches en masse up the sides of mountains—grand scale—hoping to feel something. Nothing obvious happens. Six people sitting quietly, a bit longer than before. We’re here, at sea level.
We’re due back in the city—the place where we keep our heads down. Down toward our cells, iPods, our devices. Our fingers over them gesture the sign of the cross. From our electronic caves we don’t look out. No looking out.
On a city lamppost, a crow. Looking for stuff. He’s interested. He looks around. Crow looks at our bent heads and calls. He calls to us.