A Tale of Two Walkers

Two of my friends are on long walks right now.

Jason Meyers is walking the length of the Bruce Trail, a total of 885 kilometers, through some of the most lovely country remaining in Southern Ontario. He is joined by his partner, singer and songwriters Bri-anne Swan, who will be performing concerts along the way. Jason and Bri-anne’s odyssey is being under taken to raise awareness of and money for research into a cure for Multiple Sclerosis.

Alexandra Morton is walking down the length of Vancouver Island, having started by boat on Malcolm Island at the mouth of The Broughton Archipelago, and will arrive in Victoria on May 8th, after walking more than 450 kilometers and visiting dozens of communities along the way.

Alex is walking for wild salmon. Dubbed “the get out migration” she and dozens – and likely hundreds before she reaches her destination — of others are walking to send a clear message to Canada’s federal government: that open net fish farms are killing wild salmon. These wild creatures are the electric current that charge the Pacific coast. Hundreds of communities depend on them. The only acceptable solution is to get the salmon farms out of wild salmon habitat and onto land where they can be better controlled.

Both of these extraordinary people are pilgrims and I am enormously proud to know them.

Jason is a pretty close friend. We met in 2001 or 02 in Canmore, Alberta where Jason was working for a marketing company and I was working for a small conservation group called Wildcanada.net. Jason came on board as a volunteer to help us get our act together, giving us valuable insight into how to reach new markets with our conservation message. Shortly thereafter we hired him and I think his life went downhill after that. Now he has a thriving web strategy company called Five Stones and lives in Toronto. He has supported me through some pretty tough decisions and rocky times, and I am grateful for his devoted friendship.

He is one of the most earnest, loyal and hard working people I have ever met. He describes himself as “part technocrat, part gypsy, part mountain goat” and is happiest and most at peace while walking. Recently he walked the 900 kilometer Camino de Santiago trail in Spain and I’m pretty sure that journey changed his life. Both he and Bri-anne have people close to them who are affected by MS, and so the He Walks, She Rocks journey is dedicated to them.

I’ve only met Alex Morton once, at her home in Sointula, on Malcolm Island, where she was kind enough to take me in and feed me wild salmon while I was researching The Darkening Archipelago. Alex is the most passionate and reasonable voice I’ve ever met for salmon and the ecosystem that they bind together. She measures her ardor with a scientist’s eye for levelheaded insight into what is destroying our oceans and practical solutions for restoring it to health. She read and latter “blurbed” for the DA, and her insight made it a better book without a doubt.

That these two amazing people are walking, each for a cause that is close to their hearts and critically important, at the same time is no coincidence.

Jason Meyers on his He Walks, She Rocks journey. My father, Bob Legault, took this photo after walking with Jason a ways north of Burlington, ON.

Pilgrimage is a part of most every major religion in the world. Muslims have Mecca, Jews have Jerusalem, Buddhists have the Bodi tree at Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. When we journey to these places, we do so for intensely personal reasons. While the outward journey may be one of self sacrifice, of faith, of community, the inward journey may be about compassion, devotion, and love.

It is this love that is needed so desperately now, at this perilous and profoundly opportunistic intersection in human evolution. When people are capable of such love for life, for friends, for family, for the wild earth that we are inextricably a part of, there is cause for hope, for joy, for our future.

Two people surrounded by many, each on a journey for something that they love. Join them.

The He Walks She Rocks journey: www.hewalkssherocks.ca.

The Get Out Migration: www.salmonaresacred.org.

An Audience named Andy

Saturday night I was in Vancouver for the fourth book event for the Darkening Archipelago. I’d been looking forward to this for some time because the reading was in Chapters.

Breaking into Chapters is not easy, and many writers and some readers would argue not all together helpful. But to be a writer making a living from his craft in Canada, Chapters is not only necessary, but practically essential. So when I was offered the opportunity to read at the flagship Vancouver store on Robson Street, I jumped! Better still it was in conjunction with Earth Day celebrations being coordinated by The BC Book Publishers Association, the Association of BC Magazine Publishers and the Sierra Club BC. All good folks.

After a decent launch in Victoria I read to small but enthusiastic pairs and handfuls of supporters in Calgary and Canmore, Alberta. But Chapters would be different, I imagined. I knew that the groups involved had done a lot of promotion to their own networks, and I had sent a note to more than 200 people that I have a relationship with in Vancouver as well. My publisher and I beat the earned media bushes, and I set up the obligatory facebook events page.

And so the big night came. There were my books, gleaming and ready for the purchasing public to procure.

And there was the audience. There he was. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to this audience as The Andy.

The Andy was very engaged and very attentive. The Andy listened as I read excerpts from the opening chapter, where Archie Ravenwing meets his untimely end at the hands of an unknown assailant. The Andy engaged with me on the future of salmon farming, and the role of wild salmon in the coastal ecosystem. The Andy even indulged me as I read a brief passage that explains the title of the book; how wild salmon are like the current of electricity that surges through coastal ecosystems, and how we are literally pulling the plug on this essential charge, leaving the Archipelago and all of the coast in a growing darkness.

I think The Andy might have thought it awkward to clap at the end of the reading. But The Andy did uy a copy of both my environmental murder mysteries at the end, and I gratefully personalized the signature in each.

The Andy was, in a word, singular in its participation in Saturday nights reading. And for that, I thank him.

So I read to one person at the largest book store in Vancouver. (For honesty’s sake, I should point out that my wife, Jennifer, was also there. She’s been to all the book talks so far so I don’t think I can count her as an audience member. More a groupie at this point.) Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negros (one of the best selling books in Canada last year) read to 9 people at a big box store north of Toronto while his book was perched atop the best sellers list.

It’s a little daunting to sit in a Chapters store, with over 100,000 titles surrounding you, and an audience named Andy before you, and imagine that somehow you can make a living do this. But that’s what you have to do. It’s part of the dues system you have to pay. Yan Martel, author of Beatrice and Virgil, and most famously, Life of Pi, took two years off writing after that book was published in order to promote it. You have to show up. Even if nobody else does.

Saturday night at Chapters wasn’t a loss, not by a long shot. The store now has dozens of copies of both The Cardinal Divide and The Darkening Archipelago awaiting the book loving public, pleading not to be returned. At the very least, many media outlets in Vancouver were given the opportunity to review and write about the books, even if they haven’t yet. I had a great conversation with the audience named Andy, and Jenn and I spent a couple of pleasant hours wandering around East-end Vancouver on Sunday morning before heading back to Victoria. It’s on to Tofino next weekend to read at Darwin’s Cafe on Saturday night. Though ever humbled, I remain undaunted.

So if you’ll excuse me, somewhere around here there is a horse I have to get back on.

Earth Day Inspirations

This file opens as a Quick Time recording

It’s Earth Day, and I’m thinking about inspirations.

My first inspiration as an activist was the wild earth itself. But shorty after starting to advocate for the places and people that were important to me, I took inspiration from role models: people like Pat Potter, Tzeporah Berman and Elizabeth May (both of whom I met in the early 199os) and later Mike and Diane McIvor, Cliff Wallis, Wendy Frances, Dianne Pachal, Harvey Locke and others. Today Alexandra Morton and Don Staniford, and their Get Out Migration are inspiring me as are so many activists and community leaders from across Canada and around the world.

When I wrote The Darkening Archipelago, the character’s inspiration was very much on my mind. Archie Ravenwing is a First Nations leader and wild salmon activist who draws his inspiration directly from the circling earth and sea and sky all around his tiny home in the fictional Port Lostcoast, in the very real Broughton Archipelago. Like many of us, Archie does not see the demarcation between himself and the wild earth, but instead feels himself part of the wild ecosystem that is being destroyed by salmon farming, logging, mining and the loss of totem species like the salmon and the grizzly bear.

In the excerpt I’ve read for you for Earth Day, we meet the novels troubled protagonist, Cole Blackwater, as he discusses the disappearance and murder of their mutual friend Archie with Dr. Casandra Petrel. Together they share part of their own inspiration for the work they do to protect wild salmon. This dialog, though fictional, is based on a very real conversation I had while researching this novel some years ago. I hope you enjoy it. Share it with your friends. Its my gift to you this Earth Day.

And if you like what you hear you can listen to a reading of chapter two of the Darkening Archipelago, or read the first chapter here. After that you’re going to have to buy the book.

And finally, consider becoming a fan of Cole Blackwater on Facebook to get updates to the story, notification about readings and media on the book, and alerts to other writing that you might be interested in.

Breaking the Buddha

My statue of Gautama Buddha broke the other day. Broke again, I should say.

I bought this eight inch tall statue shortly after moving out of my family home almost four years ago now, and into a 100-year old character home in Victoria’s Fernwood neighborhood. I bought it before I had any real furniture or even a bed for my kids. After looking at dozens of different figurines, I selected this particular effigy because of the particularly serene look on “the conqueror’s” face. It was to be a symbol of my new approach to living, and day after day I used it as an aide memoire for the peace I was hoping to bring into my life.

This statue sits perched in my entrance way, watching over my family and I as we come and go. Silas and Rio both recognize his placid smile as other children might recognize Big Bird or that crazed purple dinosaur that haunts so many parent’s nightmares. When Silas was learning how to build with Duplo, he made his own characters and would present them to me and say “look, it’s the Buddha.” And of course it was.

I keep the Buddha on ledge with a slight slant, in a prominent place in my entrance, in part to have a touchstone, and in part to announce to those entering and exiting that I for one am at least making an effort to clean up my act. The Buddha’s prominence is part ego and part beseeching for patience with my indiscretions.

The house I live in is very old, and more than a little cranky, and is listing precariously to, well, all sides at the same time. Put a marble down on any of the century old Douglas Fire floors and off it goes, careening one way, and then the next, racing for a wall or stairwell. The doors in the house suffer the most. Their frames are ancient, and the wood is well past its prime, and all of the hinges require regular lubrication (don’t we all) and every three or four months I have to take them all off, fill in the decaying screw holes and re-hang them.

But sometimes more than three or four months pass and the doors start to sag and we have to lift the door to close it. And sometimes we don’t even do that, and a great shudder is sent through the frame as the prehistoric door is rattled on its primeval hinges.

And sometimes they get slammed.

Fear is the root of anger. Behind most everything that I become angry about lurks a silent fear that won’t show its face, but sends anger in its stead. When I get angry I yell, I stomp around, I bolt. I sometimes rush from the house, frustrated and afraid and fuming not understanding where my anger was born or why it is rearing its head again, but knowing that I have to get away from it. That I have to run from it; that if I can just put enough distance between myself and my fear and my anger that I might finally outrun it.

The door, hanging on its hinges, comes between me and the outside world.

And the Buddha sits on its slanting ledge next to the door.

I can’t remember if the first time the Buddha lept from his ledge I was slamming the door, or just closing it forcefully so that it would stay closed.

But I know that the most recent time the Buddha called me to attention was when the door got between me and escape.

And down he came.

His head broke off, a piece of his shoulder came apart and the funny little pom-pom on his head came off. It stopped me in my tracks.

I stood there looking at him on the ground, trying to feel nothing. Trying to let go of my disappointment with myself.

The fact of the matter is that in toppling to the ground, Gautama Buddha alerted me once more to my suffering, and my need to address it. Suffering, according to the Buddha, is the basic human condition. But suffering can be ended, and there is a clear path – the Eightfold Path – to put a stop to it. Enlightenment is the permanent end of suffering. The Buddha is called The Conqueror because he was the first to vanquish suffering and gain as a reward freedom and peace.

I’ve been walking this path consciously for five or six years. I’ve been aware of it for much longer than that, trying in my furtive way, to ease myself onto this path without actually doing the hard work to address what stands between me and freedom from suffering.

I picked the Buddha up that morning, collecting the little pieces, cradling his decapitated head in my hands, and brought him downstairs to the workbench. He seemed beyond repair that morning. Sometimes everything seems beyond repair. I walked away from him believing that when I returned from my research and book tour of Alberta, I’d have to throw him out and start over again.

But I didn’t.

Sometimes it seems, in my effort to achieve peace, to free myself from the illusions and fears that cloud my vision of reality, that I have to start from scratch again and again. I burn up any progress made over the last half decade – over the last 40 years — in the heat of my passions, my anger and my fear.

But the Buddha foresaw this in his own effort to conquer suffering. Anybody who walks a spiritual path does. We take our tentative steps forward, peel back another layer of illusion and come face to face with whatever it is we’ve hidden beneath the veneer of day to day existence. Sometimes it sends us reeling. And when it does, we wonder if we will ever be forgiven; if we will ever truly be free.

All of my spiritual teachers would remind me that when I feel as though I have to run away from my fear, from my anger, from suffering; that is the time to sit. To sit with the ghastly discomfort that surges through my body and make we want to slam doors and run away.

Gautama Buddha called me to attention: my Teacher was in the room that morning, and he crashed to the floor so I might relearn a lesson. Once again. It was a Buddhist monk, after all, who counseled that if we met the Buddha on the road that we should kill him.  There is no ultimate orthodoxy in the path to peace: only the tearing away of illusions and the compassionate, loving embrace of reality, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done.

I didn’t toss my statue of the Buddha in the garbage. Yesterday morning I carefully glued his head back in place, even delicately bonding the little pom-pom back atop his tranquil head. We don’t have to start over; we can start so much further down the path than we ever imagined, and we can be forgiven our indiscretions and transgressions along the way.

But I am going to find a better place for my statue. Just to be on the safe side.

The Darkening Archipelago sets sail

The Darkening Archipelago has been set loose upon the unsuspecting world. My family and I launched the book at Frances Thorsen’s Chronicles of Crime bookshop in Victoria on April 8th, and then Jenn and I headed east to Alberta where I read at Pages on Kensington in Calgary on Monday the 12th and Cafe Books on Thursday the 15th.

What each of these events lacked in volume (Victoria had about 20 people, but Calgary and Canmore had just a handful each) they made up for in spirit. It was great to celegrate the release of my third book with friends and family.

In Calgary I got to see good friends Blaine and Sarah, and talk with them about Mito Canada, a non-profit organization that they have started to address mitocondrial disease, which struck their son Evan two years ago, leaving him severly disabled. I never, ever talk with these two amazing parents without feeling deeply inspired.

In Canmore I was able to read to some close friends who I worked with while serving on the Board of Directors of Yellowstone to Yukon from 1996-2004, and while working with Wildcanada.net from 1999-2005. I love Joy McLean’s amazing store Cafe Books, which is the last book store standing in the Bow Valley after shops in Banff and Lake Louise went under in the last year.

But the highlight of the week of promotion had to be homebase in Victoria, where my wife Jenn presented me with a cake decorated to look like the cover of the Darkening Archipelago, and where Rio stood up after my reading to announce to the intimate crowd that he thought I was a “very good writer” and that he had recently given his grade 2 teacher a copy of the book because they were studying wild salmon in class.

Finally, on the ferry returning across the Straight of Georgia last night, Jenn and I found a facing of the DA in the ship’s gift shop! Its good exposure for a book about troubled waters just to the north of this passage. Though I asked her not to, I was secretly delighted when Jenn let out a little sequel when we spotted the books. She can get away with it: I can’t.

I could care less if the Globe and Mail ever reviews my books so long as I have family who support what I do, and who think I’m a good writer.

OK, the Globe could pen a review too, if they want….

Rio and Steph and the Cake at Chronicles of Crime in Victoria

Sign outside Canmore's Cafe Books

Reading to new friends and old in Canmore, Alberta

Finding the DA in the gift shop on the Spirit of Vancouver Island

The Soft Shall Overcome the Hard

Day breaks over the Continental Range; the cold hard light of dawn edges out the cloudless night. Its minus five but predicted to hit plus twenty today. The remaining snow here in the highest community in Canada will certainly be all but gone come the weekend. Mount Temple, viewed out my friends’ window, is a familiar sight; its a triangular, glacial clad massif that looms more than 6000 feet above Paradise Valley and the Bow Valley below. Its my favorite mountain in the world, so far. Its hard and angular and imposing, like the landscape that circles it for a hundred kilometers in every direction, like the landscape that stretches two thousand kilometers north and south along the axis of the Great Divide, the stalwart chain of the Rocky Mountains.

Paradinse Valley and Mount Temple: an adamantine landscape

It’s an adamantine landscape. Its all perpendicular angles and abrupt edges. Its often very cold except for a few brief months when it can be very hot. And while the dales that finger like green filaments between the imposing walls of limestone have a gentleness to them, most of this landscape is rigid and unyielding.

It’s a hard place on the body. When I lived here I felt as if I was always about to crack open. My body itched with the dryness. My head ached from the Chinook winds that pressed down on the mountains with accordant regularity.

When I moved to the west coast five years ago I remember feeling relief. The verdant coastal forests, the soft rounded hills, the gentle pulse of the ocean; each of these things heralded an abatement to the hardness that had predominated my life.

It was more than physical: I was like the mountains too. Hard, unyielding. It had made me rigid in my approach to life. The coast helped take the edge off.

The sun slips down the flank of Mount Temple, illuminating it’s snow plastered northern face. Temple’s glacial cap wears a blue tinge, catching the morning light in its pocks and folds and fissures.

I worry that as I spend more time in this landscape of hard edges and angles that I will take on those characteristics once more myself.

“This is the universal truth: The soft shall overcome the hard,” says Lao Tzu.

I’ve been preaching this in my work as an activist, and as a leader.

“All living things are soft and flexible / All things in death are hard and brittle / The hard and the brittle will be broken / the soft and the flexible will endure.”

How can I embrace this truth in my own life?

When I moved to the Pacific coast, I felt as if my body relaxed for the first time. Coming home to these mountains doesn’t need to mean I grow rigid once again.

I’ve been pondering this conundrum for more than a year. Its no surprise that the answer to this question might be found in water.

“Water is as soft as anything on earth / yet mountains and canyons have been sculpted by its force,” adds Lao Tzu.

The other day Jenn and I stood at the confluence of the Pipestone and Bow Rivers. We were scouting scenes for my novel The End of the Line. When I lived in Lake Louise in the early 1990′s I used to come to this place high up on the Bow River watershed to watch these two rivers seamlessly come together. I dreamed then that my life might emulate this confluence; now I am caught in its joyous flow.

These mountains, of course, have been shaped by water. The frozen sort, the massive glacial ice sheets that covered this landscape in a kilometer or more of ice ten thousand years ago gouged the V shaped valleys into broad U shaped dales. We see their work in the sheered off cliffs and sculpted domes all around us. But it would be a stretch to categorize the last ice age as a soft. The last glacial epoch lasted for millions of years and covered much of the northern hemisphere and I would imagine to all but the hardiest of creatures would have seemed unyielding. Its unlikely it was very relaxing.

Of course, in geologic time, the ice age too yielded to the tilting of the earth, the periodic wobble of the earth’s rotation around the sun.

Maybe its all a matter of temporal perspective.

I think that for my purposes I will look to water’s liquid form. See how it moves across the surface of the earth, gently pulling at the stones until they pry loose and succumb to water’s patient tug? Watch as it ebbs and flows; sometimes raging in a torrent, pulling entire canyon walls down in the flood, and sometimes placid, a crystal pool as clear as the sky.

“Be at ease,” advises Loa Tzu. “When turmoil swirls around you / be as the stone in the river’s flow / allow the waters to come and go/ come and go.”

And be like the water too, soft and yielding and at ease, but with the force and power to move the earth itself.

The Illusion of Forward Progress

This morning I was thinking about progress; about forward progress in particular, and about the illusion of forward progress to be more specific.

I found myself retracing long abandoned but familiar steps: the icy trail from staff housing in Lake Louise, Alberta to the shopping mall where I could buy a Globe and Mail and a loaf of bread at Laggan’s Deli. I first worked in Lake Louise in the summer of 1992 as a Park Interpreter for Parks Canada, and during that and the four summer’s and a few winter’s that followed made Lake Louise my home.

My memory of that time is rich: summer’s hiking in the mountains, sometimes logging as many as a thousand kilometers on and off trail in my explorations and my guiding for Parks. Long evenings playing Ultimate Frissbee on the ball diamonds while stalwart Mount Temple loomed above. Mornings drinking tea and reading the Globe before a shift at the Visitor Centre or taking tourists up the Plain of Six Glaciers. Nearly twenty years in the rear view mirror, I remember those gilded summer’s as if they were yesterday.

Which is why it is so strange to find myself walking along familiar pathways beneath familiar mountains.

I’m in Lake Louise ground-truthing some of the scenes in a novel called The End of the Line. It’s a historical murder mystery set in what is today Lake Louise, but in the spring of 1884 was alternately known as Holt City, the Summit or Laggan, depending on the reference. I spent some time yesterday at Fort Calgary, in their archives, researching the work of the North West Mounted Police at the time, who were charged with keeping the peace over the vast reaches of the North West Territories, nearly 20 years before the formation of the province of Alberta. And I read from my book The Darkening Archipelago in Calgary, and will again read in Canmore in the coming days.

Grounding truthing a location for a scene in The End of the Line

When I left Lake Louise  late in 1996- was forced out, actually, buy the Park Service for being outspoken on the conflict between development and protection in Canada’s National Parks – I had  already been dreaming of being a writer. I return, now, to work on the fourth draft of a novel, but still a very long way from earning a living at the craft. So much has changed in my life, but I can’t really decide if any of it might be considered forward progress.

What have a learned in all these years, I asked myself, striding across the Pipestone River?

My answer: that the notion of forward progress is an illusion. We believe our lives are on a trajectory from beginning to end and that time is an arrow that pierces us on it’s dizzying parabola. But it’s not. If it needs a shape at all, its a spiral, but without a top or a bottom; one that just keeps growing larger and larger as we come to see more about the truth of our existence. Buddhists think of this process as the wheel of Dharma, or sometimes simply the wheel of life. Forward progress can not be measured in material accomplishments – the illusionary hallmarks of modern success – but through the overcoming – in fact conquering – of those illusions.

I come back to Lake Louise, to the Bow Valley, where I lived for nearly 14 years, with a few more trips around the circumference of that spiral under my belt. A lot has changed, and a lot has remained the same, and maybe the most important thing is that I know I should not care if I’m making froward progress; only that I’m learning a lot with each turn of the wheel.