Here's what I presented: I'm hoping to have more presentations in the next few days.
I’m a writer and publisher; working with words has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. So before I go any further, I want to be clear. When asked the question, should Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project be built, my answer is no. Absolutely not. And if you believe in this government’s so-called economic policy that claims building war ships, prisons, and exporting raw bitumen to China is in the national interest, while it suppresses or vilifies the voices of anyone who might actually have some data to refute that claim, well, I have a bridge you might be interested in. No, not the famous one in New York, not even that new Peace bridge just built in Calgary, no, a lovely little footbridge that crosses Driftwood Creek beside our home. A creek our boys fished in, swam in, skated on, and played beside from their earliest days. A creek that has watered my garden and my creativity with its many voices, a voice that in spring, I like to imagine speaks with the thousand tongues of winter. A creek that is in one of the watersheds this pipeline proposes to cross.
And while you may think water runs only one way, spend enough time beside a creek and you’ll realize your mistake. The salmon and oolichan travelling upstream to spawn are obvious and important examples, but every spring – and I mean that literally – we stand on that bridge and watch two or three harlequin ducks paddling up Driftwood Creek, often while patches of snow still line the banks – usually two males and a female – who have travelled hundreds of km upriver from the coast to build a nest and rear their young in the high alpine.
And every year, from that same bridge, we see dippers managing, even when it’s forty below, to find an opening:
A quiet seepage –
too quiet, really, to be called a spring –
can unlock the earth’s heat.
The ice exhales and opens
a pool for this dipper
bobbing on a rock.
It dives in and finds a current
that’s warmer than the winter air.
There’s spirit in there somewhere,
and bouncing back, the bird
it dipsy doodles
on the slippery dance floor
tapping out some bebop riff
we all wish that we could follow.
Something in the key of home.
That one small creek and the river it flows into are all part of the watershed that my family calls home.
And home is what I really want to talk about. It was 1976, and I was on my way into the northwest for a newspaper job when I passed a sign planted on a hill somewhere between Burns and Decker lakes. Eternity, it said. Where will you be? Well, I knew it wasn’t going to be here. After one northern winter, I was heading back south, back to school, back to civilization.
But before that, I had a trip to finish. Coming down Six-Mile Hill, the muffler on my car dropped to become a rattling sparking percussive accompaniment to my precipitous descent. Instant comeuppance for my sneer at eternity. A friendly northerner gave me wire to bind the muffler back into place until I reached my destination. Which, like the Enbridge pipeline, was Kitimat. I spent a few days there, and a few months in Terrace before I moved to Smithers in 1977, where I’ve lived pretty much ever since – always within earshot of Driftwood Creek.
So, about the sign. It was located right about where the pipelines would cross Highway 16, the Endako River, the CN track, and continue west across Gerow Creek (still in the Fraser River watershed) to Maxan Creek. A height of land. Maxan Creek flows into Maxan Lake which drains into Bulkley Lake, the headwaters of the Bulkley River and the Skeena watershed. The pipeline would then cross Foxy and Klo and Buck creeks, Owen Creek and Fenton Creek all on its way to the Morice that used to be called Watsonquah. All the history in those names. All flowing into the Bulkley, the Skeena, the Pacific, right out to where those harlequin ducks spend their winters on an intricate coastline that defies measurement.
Just last summer we spent a few days on Porcher Island; one day we paddled over to Oval Beach on the eastern shore of Hecate Strait. This poem, Fractals on Oval Beach came from that day. (Fractals are irregular shapes that can be repeatedly subdivided into increasingly smaller copies of the whole. They are used to model natural structures that, unlike pipelines, do not have simple geometric shapes.)
A fat black raven stands just above the surf line.
Another perches on a nearby log. Something glints
as the water rolls and drops it, stranded on the gravel.
One raven hops down and nabs the wriggling silver streak.
He jumps back before the next wave crashes,
a surf smelt thrashing in his beak.
He gulps, gagging as it struggles in his throat.
We walk into the waves, looking.
And there they are. As numerous
as the shards of fractured light
slivers of fish roll and tumble in each wave.
The other raven hops down, head sideways.
It plucks another smelt
from the sand. Both birds eat.
Both watch and wait for more.
The sun lights their feathers
with the iridescence of oil floating on water.
On our way here,
we paddled through a narrow opening
between two outcrops. Inside these waters
it’s hard to tell which rocks are islands
and which are part of something bigger. The tides change
the answer every minute and this week
the tides are over twenty feet. Our boats slipped through,
the hulls skimming hundreds of anemones
and sea cucumbers, sea squirts, sun stars, bat stars, starfish,
some dangling high above us, waiting for the tide.
Crabs scuttled, as crabs do
and dug trenches in the sand, claws up for battle.
All this seen in one small pause
in one small opening
in the coastline of one small island.
How long, you might ask, is the coastline of Porcher Island?
It all depends on how carefully you measure. The closer you get,
the longer the coast becomes. Much longer
than you might have thought. Infinity, in fact,
contained within this finite space.
This is not just a measurement to amuse mathematicians.
It’s a line drawn by the daily wash of water,
full of invisible life,
filtered to feed the anemone
and the humpback whale,
to feeds the smelts,
that feed the salmon,
that feed the silver-sided dolphins we floated among
as they thrashed back and forth across the bay,
over a hundred of them jumping, turning, tail slapping the water into a chop.
To feed the wolves that pace the shore.
It’s a line that would become
an oil slick underscored by globules of bitumen
rolling and tumbling onto the same beaches
the surf smelts needs to spawn.
Into each kelp bed, each low tide cranny
where complexity resides.
Where our harlequins return in late summer with their young.
There’s a new sign now that say, Jesus Cares for You. While I’m tickled to have outlasted that sign just this side of Burns Lake, I have come to miss its urgency, urgency we need now. It isn’t the fabricated urgency the oil companies and their political preachers profess from Ottawa’s pulpits. It’s the urgent voice of a river in full flood, a swollen muddy thing that rips out cottonwoods, bridges, roads and even houses if you’re not careful. Not to mention pipelines. I encourage all of you, as the high snows melt, to go down to the water and listen. The water is asking us that same question. Eternity – where will we be?