Everything Changes

Yesterday Silas turned 9. I’ve found myself of late falling more deeply in love with this boy; he is smart, he is funny, and he has a beautifully developed sense of respect and compassion for other people. Often as not when someone in our household needs some TLC, it’s Silas who is there to offer it.

In the morning we sat on the couch together and looked at the mountains. I asked him what he knew about the world. “A lot,” he said, and it’s true. The boy has a fantastic memory, and repeats what he knows with such confidence that even if you harbor some doubt as to the varsity of his claims, you can’t help but admire the assurance they are delivered with. We talked about how big the world was; not in the physical sense, but in the sense that it’s vast, and has so many people and cultures on it that we might spend our whole lives getting to know them all and still only make a beginning.

I asked him “what do you know to be true?”

He thought about this only for a second and then said: “That Mythbusters is the best TV show.”

Silas wants to be a Mythbuster when he grows up. Taking the boys to see this science-meets-mayhem duo in Calgary was one of Jenn and my highlights of the year.

Then he said something that I’ve come to expect from him, but is no less extraordinary. “You can’t hold on to anything because everything changes. You just have to let go.”

And here’s the thing: he isn’t just repeating something that I’ve told him – and it is true we talk about this sort of thing a lot – but he actually understands this and tries to put it into place in his day-to-day life, as much as anybody could.

Falling asleep last night I was thinking about that statement; I wished I had learned that when I was 9. I wished I had know that when I was 19 or 29. How much of my life has been wasted desperately clinging to something that is fleeting, ephemeral, transient? I’ve spent years of my life morning some loss, some passage that simply marks the natural human progression through time.

I still am, and the thing that I’m holding on to for dear life is this darling little boy and his big brother Rio, who is 12, and also one of the great loves of my life. When Rio was born I penned a piece called The Year of Letting Go; I knew then that from the moment they are born we begin the process of letting go. I know that intellectually, and remind myself of it often, but it doesn’t make it any easier when time is pressing on you and you find yourself unable to hold on but unwilling to just let go.

“Everything changes, Dad.” I can hear my sage nine-year-old remind me as I watch him in his sleep on the eve of his 10th year. Those words remind me of the hours and days after he was born, which seem like they were just yesterday but are separated by nearly nine billion kilometers of travel through space, skinned knees, first and last days of school and innumerable lessons taught about life, not by the father, but by the son. I knew then as I know now that I have always known this beautiful person and that his coming into my life would be one of the greatest gifts I could ever hope to receive. Happy birthday Silas Morgen Legault.

Stay Forever

I want to stay this way forever.

I’m standing on the crest of a ridge that divides the Rock Creek Drainage from Connelly Creek in the foothills of Southern Alberta. To the east are the forested tops of the Porcupine Hills, their elongated domes look like a pod of humpback whales swimming south. To the north is Chapel Rock and more long, gentle ridgelines, each festooned with spring wildflowers. To the west is the Livingstone Range.

Dark clouds scud across the serrated edge of Centre Peak, the highest point along the Livingstone. Those clouds cast alternating bands of deep shadow and bright, glassy light across the green hills below. Sitting at the foot of those hills is the DU Ranch, caught momentarily in a band of light like a spot light, as if to illuminate the frozen moment in history the place represents.
I want this place to stay this way forever.

For the last four days I’ve been in Waterton Lakes National Park on the Alberta – Montana border. It’s early June and a late winter has meant the wildflowers are just blooming. Hillsides are starting to glow with Arrowleaf Balsamroot, one of the harbingers of spring along the Eastern Slope and Rocky Mountain Front. Three weeks earlier I stood on a hillside west of Choteau, Montana amid my first Balsamroot of the season. Spring marches north, and I’m following it, photographing its progress, and reveling in its glory.

On my first night in Waterton I dragged my sleeping bag and bivisack out onto the Waterton Front – the narrow strip of land along the eastern edge of the Park where the prairie rises up into gentle swells before being broken by the abrupt rise of Front Range peaks – and spent the night out under the stars. You’re not supposed to bivi just anywhere in Waterton and I wasn’t technically camping because there was very little sleep involved. I set up my camera and for maybe the third time in my life attempted to photograph the dizzying orbit of the heavens. The motion of the stars leaves a thousand streaks across the sky when seen through the viewfinder of my camera over a 45 minute exposure. I’d set the camera up and using my remote control click the shutter release, and then as the stars burnt their trails across the sky, I’d sleep for a few minutes.

In early June the sky is only truly dark for a few hours, from midnight until thee am. I made half a dozen photographs during that time, but the rise and fall of the earth, the gentle glow of setting and rising sun, and the vortex of stars around Polaris, the North Star, left an indelible impression on me. I was up at five, stashing my sleeping bag and making a cup of tea before wandering along the base of Belleview Hill to photograph sunrise. The warm light and nodding Arrowleaf were the perfect start to another day along the Front. By noon I’d photographed a family of foxes and spent an hour wandering the hills east of Sofa Mountain while a Swainson’s Hawk circled overhead, decrying my presence in his domain. I’d encountered Blackfoot prayer flags on the Beebee flats and a black bear munching dandelions in the June sun.

It was a perfect day and I wanted it to last forever.

Spring is like that. After a long hard winter, which we had along the Eastern Slopes and the Rocky Mountain Front, the relief of a warm sunny day, the earth erupting with flowers, makes me never want to leave. I want to lie down on the earth’s broad back and just sink into it.

After leaving Waterton I made my way here, into the gentle dell between ridgelines in the narrowest part of the Rocky Mountains. The foothills here are almost completely without trees, the wind tears at anything that tries to put down roots. But it hasn’t stopped people from trying, and a handful of them have made it work, including three generations of ranchers at the DU Ranch. I have a cold beer with Dan and Puff McKim on the porch of their beautiful home, and Dan shows me around their spread, a place that has been in Puff’s family for 100 years. The DU is so iconic, so perfectly characteristic of our collective impression of what an Alberta ranch should be that the Municipal District of Pincher Creek designated the ranch a Heritage Viewscape in 2008.

Afterwards I walk out the hills to the east of their home and am mesmerized by the glory of the earth and the sky. The vastness of the world and its simple perfection gives a feeling of ease and well being as I stride up the crest of the ridge.

I can’t stay. I have to go home. I miss my family, and there is my job, helping people I love save the places we cherish. I can’t stay, but every time I’ve come here over the last twenty years, I take a little bit of the foothills home with me. The gentle rise and fall of the earth; the sharp edge of mountains to the west and the long flat world to the east; the song of the Meadow Lark, the bright flawlessness of morning. I can’t stay, but these things come with me and as much make up who I am every day as my genetic coding. In doing so they remind me that I never leave anything behind any more. I can leave, but every single place I love and all the cumulative experiences I’ve had in them remain a part of me forever.

 

Falling

In a few hours it will be winter. It’s felt like winter here in the Bow Valley for a long time. It almost always feels like winter here at 4,500 feet above sea level. For the last two months it’s been cold and snowy and at times more like winter than it is during a Chinook in the dead of the season.

All autumn I’ve felt like I’ve been falling. It’s hard to believe that it was just three months ago, at the cusp of summer and fall that I spent thirteen days along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, meeting with people with whom I work, trying hard to save what is precious and wild about that romantic landscape, and every morning and evening finding a piece of it to photograph.

Some mornings I’d be up long before the sun to find a place I’d scoped the night before to be rewarded with the most wonderful display of dawn’s early light. More than once I’d be panting, at the top of some hill, setting up my tripod and waiting for the sun, and think: I want this to last forever.

An hour or two later, five hundred frames frozen on a memory card on my camera, I’d be walking back to my truck, craving a cup of tea, a full day ahead, the feeling having passed.

Sunrise on Dog Gun Lake, Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Montana

But that’s why I’m still falling now. It’s so beautiful; it’s so heart breakingingly beautiful that I want it all to last forever, but of course it won’t.

In last days of October the season abruptly changed; the perfect autumn days of golden light and splendor gave way to an early season snow fall, followed close by a hard freeze and one morning all the leaves were gone. Just gone.

I’ve grown to love winter in the twenty-two years – give or take – that I’ve lived in Alberta’s Bow Valley. I don’t always love it, but now that I ski I love it almost always. But it’s still a hard time of year. Recently I’ve been going over essay’s I used to write for various local magazines and newspapers, including a five year stint as a columnist for the Canmore Leader, and every year I’d write the same two or three essays: the melancholy onset of autumn and the long wait for spring.

Some things never change.

This year they seem to have changed even less than usual; but maybe that’s because they have changed even more. Jenn and I lost a parent and a step-parent this year. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in an essay that found its way into Running Toward Stillness. Those losses, coupled with this reflective time of the year, have created a hole that I find myself staring into from time to time.

That hole is well known to us all; it is a void, the darkness, that lay on the periphery of our thoughts and consciousness at all times; seldom acknowledged but always present. It is death; the empty space. I’ve found myself aware of its dispassionate company often on my journey this fall.

Fear of death causes a lot of hardship and makes us do the most outrageous things, like buy life insurance and sport utility vehicles. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to die: I am. I’ve felt at times over the last few months that void open up and for just a few seconds I’ve looked into that empty space. I’ve imagined myself leaving this world and what that might feel like. It’s felt like nothing at all.

The scope of my work left to complete in this life is staggering. I can count forty books that I want to write without half-trying. Now that I’m shooting more seriously for a book of photography on the foothills called Earth and Sky I want to delve so much deeper into that passion I’ve had since I was a kid. And there is still the wild earth to save, if I can spare a few hours here and there.

Most important are Rio, Silas and Jenn. Without wanting to see how things end, I want to know how things turn out for them. Their days are like stories that I don’t want to get to the end of, but want more than anything to know how they surmount the plot twists as they live the most astonishingly beautiful lives I could ever imagine.

In just a few hours it will be winter. The days will get longer, but it won’t feel like it for a while, and the coldest days are still to come. Everything changes at this time of year, and I am changing too. I’m more aware of that empty space just over the horizon now; as if I needed another reminder I’ve got to stay aware of precious every single breath is.

That’s what living so close to the seasons can do for you; you don’t get any slack; every single moment is a wake-up call to keep you from falling and never getting back up.

Early snow over the Bow Valley

Dying for a Deal

Tomorrow is Black Friday, the day when, still tipsy with tryptophan we waddle down to the local Walmart or Best Buy, line up with our countrymen and stampede into the stores to snatch up the latest deals on wide screen televisions or other marked down consumer goods.

Some people aren’t waiting for the Thanksgiving dishes to be done and started lining up a week ago to get a good deal. Some big box chain stores are opening their doors for Black Friday sales early. We may have to change the inconveniently named Thanksgiving to something like beige Thursday if this trend continues. What’s next? Mauve Wednesday?

This trend to supplanting the day of thanks with another day of frantic, panic induced shopping is a disturbing trend. The day traditionally set aside for gratitude for what we have is being usurped by another day of pinning for what we want. Desire is at the root of suffering; gratitude is a doorway to spiritual and social fulfillment. But gratitude doesn’t fill the coffers of the corporations that have learned to manipulate our sense of dissatisfaction and the unquenchable hunger we can’t seem to control.

Sitting at home with our families, sharing a few quiet (or depending on your family, chaotic) hours doesn’t put more cash in the pockets of the shareholders or owners of Best Buy, Walmart, K-Mart or the other big box stores. So Black Friday starts early.

People will be hurt. Some may even be killed. One website tracks the carnage. This video provides stunning insight and a horrific reminder of a time when we had to struggle for survival. But we’re not struggling for survival on Black Friday: we’re acting like wild animals on a kill, or like heroine addicted zombies, just so we can get a deal on a flat screen TV or a set of matching bathroom towels. All over the world there are people struggling for survival and they are better behaved than many Black Friday shoppers.

Why? I think we’re programmed to do whatever we need to do in order to feed our families and ourselves, but in North America – sorry Canada, you’re merrily wading into the Black Friday stupidity too – that survival instinct is no longer about finding food and shelter. Thanks to persistent re-programming by advertisers who are only too happy to take advantage of our fear based instincts, we now are willing to trample each other for a new PS4 that’s 20% off.

I hope nobody gets killed this Black Friday. I expect lots of people will get hurt. I hope it’s worth it.

In-sight

Maybe babies see the world the way it really is.

The highlight of most of my days is my morning walk to school with Silas. These days Rio takes the bus downtown, and I miss having both my boys with me, but Silas – now 8 – makes up for Rio’s quiet demeanor with his unbridled enthusiasm for the world.

Most mornings the talk ranges from the mundane to the mysterious to the philosophical. We’ve talked about helium balloons and the Heisenberg principle; earth quakes and quantum physics and Buddhism and spirituality, all on our fifteen minute walk to school.

This morning somehow we dove deeper than we’ve ever gone before and it’s left me feeling in awe.

Hand in hand, we were strolling up the road, and somehow we got onto the topic of morning greetings. I have this habit of bidding just about everybody that I pass on the street good morning. Silas asked why. I could have said it was just to be friendly, but that’s not the real reason. I told him: sometimes people walk around feeling isolated from one another, scared or alone. When we say hello to them, ask them how their day is, we start to dismantle that loneliness. When I say good morning, or ask about someone’s day, what I’m really saying is “I love you.”

“Really?” His face was scrunched into the question.

You bet. Then I told him that part of my purpose in life was to help people feel less alone and to understand that we’re connected through our hearts. My words might say “how you doing?” but my heart says “I love you; you and I are connected.”

Then I just laid it all out: people feel lonesome or afraid or alone because we don’t see the world the way it really is. I squeezed his hand and said: “You think that this is the beginning and the end of you, but it isn’t.” Every molecule in your body is mostly empty space, protons and electrons swirling around a nucleus-like a cloud, but almost entirely devoid of substance. We don’t end or begin where we think we do. We are passing in and out of one another all the time.

“But our eyes don’t see the world that way. They evolved millions of years ago to process just a tiny fragment of the information that is all around us all the time.” Our eyes evolved to process threats, like the mastodon that is going to step on us, or to find food or a girlfriend, and not to process the fuzzy, undifferentiated haze of energy and information that erases the artificial perception of demarcation between me and the eight year old squeezing my hand. If we could see the world as it really is, I told him, we’d be overwhelmed in an instant.

I stop and bend down and breathe on him. “What am I doing?” I ask.

He looks askance. “Breathing on me?”

“When I breathe on you and you on me, I’m inside you and you in me.”

First he says “that’s kind of creepy,” but then he remembers something from a previous conversation. “Our hearts are like that too!”

“That’s right! Our heart’s give off an electric pulse with every beat.”

“It goes out forty feet!” he exclaims.

It does. “We can’t even measure how far it goes. So right now I’m walking inside your sino-rhythm and you are in mine. When we walk by people on the street we pass through them, not just by them. We only appear separate from one another because our senses haven’t evolved to see the world as it really is. You never have to feel alone, or afraid, or apart from me, or Jennie, or Rio or anybody else because we’re always connected.”

That’s when he hit me with the whopper. “Maybe babies see the world as it really is because their eyes haven’t developed fully. They see the world as blurry and as wavy lines. Maybe they see things properly.”

There are moments in parenthood when you know – you absolutely know – that everything is going work out exactly as it should for your child, and that was one of them.

We speculated: as we grow up and as we develop our vision narrows and starts processing less information. We don’t see the world as it really is, but we can become aware once more of its complexity and beauty and interrelatedness.

We walked the rest of the way to school, talking the entire way about the size of the human brain, and how we process information, and when I left him at school he was immersed in comparisons of Halloween costumes and discussions about candy and trick-or-treating. For a moment I could see him as he really was: love, indistinguishable but completely unique amid the sea of humanity, like a wave; not separate: one.

I can’t wait to walk my son to school again.

The mug is already broken

It’s dangerous to be attached to possessions but I have one thing in my life that means more than most others. It’s not my camera, nor my computer. It’s a mug.

I bought it in a small shop in Smith Falls Ontario in the summer of 1992. I was working at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park at the time; it was my first job in a park. I had just finished my first of two years at Sir Sandford Fleming Collage’s School of Natural Resources and I thought I knew what I was doing. I had no idea. Later I worked in Banff and Grand Canyon National Parks, and while I still didn’t know what I was doing, I’d gotten better at faking it by then.

What I learned that summer at Murphy’s Point was that I wanted a life lived close to nature.

And I wanted to drink a lot of tea.

The mug I bought wasn’t thrown on a wheel by an aging hippie back-to-the-lander working out of a cedar wood shed in the hills of the Frontenac Axis; it was manufactured in China. It’s like ten – maybe a hundred – thousand other mugs emblazed with stylized drawings of wolves, bears and orcas; to me it is singular in every way.

My mug has a loon on it. I love its weight, and shape, and I love the small lip around the rim. It feels good to drink out of it. But that’s not why I love it. That summer I lived in an old Junior Forest Ranger camp on the shores of Loon Lake. Every morning I got up at 5 am and made a cup of tea and walked down a trail through the pines to a granite outcrop that jutted a dozen feet into the lake. I sat there, drank my tea, watched the park awake and fell head over heels in love with the world.

From my perch on “The Rock” I watched small mouthed bass nibble of insects along the short; saw red fox hunt mice in the tall grass; learned the habits of a family of beaver who had a lodge just a few hundred feet from my morning roust; witnessed osprey circling overhead, fish struggling in their talons; learned the language of a mob of turkey vultures that nested in a dead pine; became friends with Ralph the Heron who still-hunted on a small submerged island in the middle of the lake; and gave a wide birth to Igor the snapping turtle whose head was as big as my fist and who would prop himself up on The Rock to watch me watching him.

And I met Herald and Maude and Summer.

Herald and Maude were common loons who resided on Loon Lake and built their low nest three or four hundred meters from The Rock. I had just watched the movie Herald and Maude that past winter and was enamored with the life affirming message, so named these birds after the protagonists. From my position I watched them mate and watched Maude lay her eggs and a month or so later saw their single chick emerge from beneath Maude to climb on its mother’s back for the first time. Born on June 21st, my friend Laurie Belfour and I named the chick Summer.

I bought the mug soon after and drank tea out of it every day for the rest of that season.

I have moved it two dozen times since, and still drink tea from it at least once or twice a week. I have other favourite mugs now, but my loon mug has more meaning than all the other possessions in my house combined.

Someday it will break. It’s 21 years old, and has far exceeded its life expectancy.

So important is this mug that when I was separating from my partner in 2007 and we encountered a particularly rough patch, the one thing she thought to do that might hurt me was to break my mug. She knew that more than anything else this might cause me the kind of pain that I had caused her. Later she told me and we laughed – me a little nervously – about it.

But here’s the thing: the mug is already broken.

My loon mug is symbolic of a period in my life when I lived simply, deeply, passionately, and fully. I was very much in tune with nature, rising early, sleeping outside most of that summer. I paddled a canoe almost every morning and again late at night, slipping around the coves and bays of Loon Lake in complete silence, my paddle slicing the water as barred owls called back and forth across the water. Sometimes I paddled to work.

I thought, that summer, that I had found my own Walden, and that for a short while I was living as Henry David Thoreau had advised: deliberately. I did not want to discover when I came to die, that I had not lived.

The mug is symbolic of one of my first “awakenings.” I woke up a little that summer and discovered how much the world had to offer someone who had his eyes open.

Now the mug represents another such awakening: that nothing lasts forever, and that attachment to anything, especially something material, is foolhardy.

The thing does not contain the experiences it represents; when it’s gone, they won’t be. But even attachment to those experiences can keep us from living fully in the present, and so while I enjoy the memories, I’ve labored to let them go too.

When I look at the mug now I regard it as already broken.

Each of us is born with the absolute incontestable certainty that we will die. Everything in our lives is temporary; even the things we love most of all. Someday I will leave my children, or they will leave me, forever. My wife and I will be parted. My parent’s time will come. All of the things, the people, the places and the experiences we are attached to are ephemeral. They are already gone.

I don’t enjoy the cups of tea I drink from my loon mug any less because I know it’s already broken. I enjoy them more. Every cup of tea is savoured, the rich tapestry of my past and present congealing as if clay spinning into a vessel to be held in the hand. Knowing that at any time the mug might slip from my soapy grip and shatter on the kitchen’s hardwood floor, or be knocked onto the flagstone walk while I sit on the patio steps and enjoy afternoon tea makes me aware of the preciousness of the present moment experience.

Nothing lasts forever; only in the present moment can we celebrate what a thing, a person, a place or an experience brings, and feel the blessing to have been granted another day to live and love life.

And so the mug is at once already gone, and still so much a part of each day, and I am grateful for what a simple possession has taught me.

24 hours as a photographer

Recently I had the opportunity to take a whole day and concentrate on photography. Here’s a chronology of the experience.

4:30am: Alarm goes off. Leap from bed. Big day. I get to shoot dawn to dusk.

4:31am: Remember that when I say shoot to my American friends they think I’m talking about something different.

4:32: Turn on kettle. I was so excited about this day that the night before I actually put the tea bag in my mug so I could save time.

4:34: Make tea. Drink it. Make more.

4:40: Car loaded the night before, I kiss Jenn goodbye and drive east on the Trans Canada towards Mount Yamnuska Natural Area.

4:50: The right lens falls out of my glasses. Foresee (pun intended) complications to my day.

4:51: Fix glasses while driving 110km/hour in the dark towards foothills.

5:05: Arrive at Mount Yamnuska Natural Area and begin hiking. My goal is sunrise photos from the ridge above the Bow Valley. After 25 years of shooting film, and more recently rearranging electrons (which sounds way less glamorous) I’ve got a contract with RMB | Rocky Mountain Books for Earth and Sky: A Foothills Journey to be published in 2015. I already have more than 2000 half decent images (and another 5 or 6,000 crappy shots) from the foothills shot over the last 18 years of exploration, but I want this book to be a perfect expression of my passion for this landscape, so I half run-half walk up the trail; I’m so excited to have this opportunity.

5:20: My first location yields little of value; I must climb higher. So I do.

5:45: I find the perfect location, so I set up again. Perfect location = something interesting in the foreground, in this case some lovely limestone, a great panorama of the Bow Valley and foothills, and the cresting sun. I get the image I came for. (Click images to enlarge)


6:30: In early July, with the forecast for 37 degrees C temperatures, the light is pretty much done for the day. The golden glow of sunrise has already turned harsh white. I start back down. More tea awaits in a thermos in the car.

7:30: Drive back into Canmore. My hope had been to head south towards the Porcupine Hills, but I’m holding my glasses together with gravity and the muscles of my nose, and that’s not going to work for long.

9:00: Get glasses fixed. Buy some groceries and when the liquor store opens, some beer.

11:00: After more delays, I’m on the road again.

1:30: Longview, Alberta. I forgot to call my publisher – the one who produces my fiction – and talk through some final edits for another book, so I do.

2:30: Porcupine Hills. The heat is intense and the light harsh, but I spend four hours driving around, taking different roads at random, finding dead ends, and stopping from time to time to take a few shots. I get one good image of an abandoned house (see below); the other 200 plus images are for posterity.


5:30: I drive the Skyline Road, the highest point in the Southern Porcupine Hills. The light is getting better so I stop more often and shoot.

6:30: I find a place to camp with a great view, and even better prospects for panorama’s from a crest above my tent site. Dinner and a beer.

7:30: Drive around until I get 1 bar of cell signal and call Jenn, who I miss already. Sniff. More beer.

8:30: The Show. I climb the hill above my camp, shooting rosy light on aspens as I go (see below) and then set up for some evening splendor. I’m not disappointed. I’ve been doing this since I was in grade 10, and all my life I’ve wanted to be a professional photographer, and here I am. I’m not going to waste this amazing opportunity. Every single time I press the shutter release I consider myself blessed.


10:15: The light gone, I make my way back to my campsite, stow my gear and crawl into bed, setting the alarm for 4:30. I’ve shot nearly 500 frames in one day.

4:30 am: Alarm goes off. Leap from bed. Big day. I don’t get to shoot from dawn to dusk straight through; I’ve got meetings and obligations, but I get from now until just after sunrise, and that too is a gift. I am blessed.


The Last Book

I’ve never read anything by David Rakoff but I guess I’ll have to start.

The trouble is, I suspect I’ll fall in love, and it’s going to be bitter sweet because as just about everybody knows, David died of cancer last year.

On the weekend The Globe and Mail published a story on David’s last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. The story was part eulogy and part biography and part review, and it made me want to go out and read everything Rakoff has written.

I always joke when people say to me, “I just read your last book.” I smile or laugh and say “do you know something I don’t?” Then they correct themselves, or I do it for them as some king of a grammatical service and say “my most recent book, you mean.”

But who knows?

That’s the trouble with writing; it’s never over until it’s over. It’s not like there’s an allotment of ideas for each writer and you use them up and then that’s it. It’s that way when I’m behind my camera too. I bet it’s that way for artists of all mediums.

Edward Abbey, one of my favourite non-fiction writers, always mused about writing The Fat Masterpiece and then retiring on the exorbitant royalties he would receive, smoke evil cigars and contemplate his own genius. But pretty much to the moment of his death he was writing, in his case the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang called Hayduke Lives (which sort of spoils the first book’s suspense). Abbey admitted it wasn’t a very good book, and it wasn’t, and that he did it for the money; not for him – he knew he was dying when he wrote it – but for his family.

I wonder how that feels? As I read the Globe piece on David Kakoff’s final book, and then the NY Times essay on the same,  I wondered how it must have felt for someone so dedicated to literature to know, as he did, that the words he was writing would be his last.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I have a lot of ideas. The truth is I have a lot of ideas but really I’m just trying to find different ways of getting to the main point. The thought that any one book might be the last is deeply unsettling. I guess if that one book, the last one, is truly outstanding, and conveys what the writer hopes to impart his or her readers with, then they could retire or expire knowing they had left the world having done their best work.

But creativity doesn’t seem to work that way. It seems to me that the writer, the photographer, the artist, is always trying to find the perfect words, the perfect light, the perfect shape that expresses how she or he feels about this life, the world, and one another. So we write another book, shoot another sunset, sing another song, paint another canvas or throw another bowl on the wheel because maybe, with each renewed effort, we will create something beautiful or hilarious, touching or disconcerting that says “this is what I wanted to tell you about how I feel.”

And then we do it again.

Knowing that something – a book, a photograph, a play, a sculpture – is going to be the last one could be heartbreaking. It could be overwhelming. It could be a relief too, but a bitter sweet one at best.

I’ll pick up David Rakoff’s new book, and for me it won’t be his last.

Back to Batoche

Today is a momentous day for the Métis people of Canada, and for all Canadians. After 128 years the bell from the local church in the town of Batoche is coming home.

Stolen by soldiers from the Northwest Field Force on the final day of the battle that put Batoche on the map of Canadian history, the Bell ended up in the town of Millbrooke, Ontario, where it was housed in the local fire hall, until that building burned to the ground. Cracked in the fire, it was then put on display in the local Legion Hall. In 1991 the Legion was broken into and the bell ‘removed.’ It hasn’t been seen in public since.

The Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba has now negotiated the bell’s return, promising anonymity with those who have held the bell for the last two decades.

Today (Saturday July 20) is the day of the Bell’s repatriation.

In May of this year I visited Batoche for a second time. I was on a book tour for the Third Riel Conspiracy, a mystery novel set during the four day battle that was the climax of the 1885 Northwest Resistance. I had an event scheduled for Saskatoon that night, but wanted to see once again the landscape the Métis fought to defend.

Like too many Canadians, I didn’t learn about Batoche while I was in school. I learned more about the American Civil War than I did the events that indelibly shaped my own country. The Durrant Wallace series of historically themed mysteries are as much an excuse for me to dive deeply into my countries own past as it is a chance to tell compelling tales of intrigue and adventure.

While walking over the golden fields along the Mission Ridge, watching the Saskatchewan River bend between high bluffs where Métis sharpshooters kept the much more substantial Field Force at bay for four days, I thought that this was one of those places that every Canadian should step foot. Reading about the events that lead up to the Resistance is fine – the destruction of the buffalo, the deplorable starvation of the Cree, Sioux and Métis, the stolen land, the effort to force the Métis to accept land away from the River, lifeblood of the prairie, and of course religion – but walking the same pathways that Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont did makes it real.

At the center of the battle was the church. On the first and final day of the conflict, the fighting engulfed that building. That building creates a focal point for any visit to Batoche, and it was from there that the Bell was stolen, the spoils of war.

As Canadians we still live in a nation divided. I’ve never condoned the tactics employed by Dumont and Riel in the spring of 1885, but I understand why a people, on the verge of starvation, their voices lost in the relentless crush of progress during that formative decade, would resort to any means necessary to get the attention of political Canada. Walking the trails at Batoche there is a feeling that Canada lost something important when both sides resorted to open warfare that spring.

Maybe, when the Bell rings out in Batoche once more, calling people not to pray but to consider our shared heritage and journey as a country, we can start to write a new chapter in our collective future together.

Two for the price of one

I finished writing the first draft of The Same River Twice yesterday morning. This will be the third book in the Red Rock Canyon series, featuring Silas Pearson and his journey to find his missing wife, Penelope de Silva.

I finished the first draft of Black Sun Descending in the middle of May. It’s the second book in the series that started with the publication of The Slickrock Paradox last year. The trilogy is set in the American Southwest, around Arches, Canyonlands and Grand Canyon National Parks, and the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monuments.

In total I wrote about 155,000 words in just over three months. As I’ve said before, first drafts are the literary equivalent of me vomiting words onto a page as if I’d been binge drinking all night. I write as fast as I can just to keep up with the kaleidoscope of images, characters, plot lines and the myriad voices in my head.

I’ve written seven other books in three different mystery series, as well as two books of non-fiction, and a couple of unpublished manuscripts, but I’ve never written two first drafts back-to-back. This was an experiment, and it seemed to work.

Credit for the idea goes to Ruth Linka, at Touchwood Editions for suggesting it. Back in March she and I met and discussed the uncomfortably long list of books that are banging at the side of my head trying to get out. Earlier in the day Don Gorman, with Rocky Mountain Books – who is publishing my upcoming book of essays and photographs Running Toward Stillness – did the same. Both of these publishers work under the umbrella of the Heritage Group. During the course of those two meetings we mapped out my next ten or eleven book projects, which accounted for about a quarter of the books that I’ve got sulking around in the frontal lobe of my cerebellum, vying for attention, insisting on being written IMMEDIATELY.

Ruth suggested that I write the next two books in the Red Rock Canyon series at the same time, and we’d release them together as a sort of concluding salvo in that series sometime next year. This made a lot of sense from a productivity perspective; it turns out it made a lot of sense from a creative perspective as well.

Starting in early April I began working on Black Sun Descending. The process nearly went off the rails early on because I broke one of my cardinal rules and didn’t write a detailed outline. I had a five page summary of all three books I’d used to pitch them to TouchWood back in 2009 but didn’t bother to flesh that out before starting Black Sun. That was a mistake. I was relying on momentum to propel me through sections of the book I wasn’t entirely clear on, but in order to count of such forward motion you actually have to build up a head of steam and that was slow in coming with this novel.

My normal process is to write an outline and just hold on as tight as I can. This means penning about 2,000 words every morning between the hours of five and seven or eight a.m. This slowed to five hundred words during the most difficult sections of the book. I considered, about a third of the way into the book’s 70,000 word first draft, stopping and penning a more detailed outline. I didn’t: I feared I’d lose the one thing I had going for me, which was a routine, and never recover. That was stupid, and the next time I get bogged down like that I hope I’ll remember to take a day or two and just write the damn outline.

I plowed through, slowly, and by the end of May had completed the draft. It sucks of course. Most first drafts do, and that’s alright, because while first drafts are hell, second drafts are pure bliss; they are my favourite part of the writing process. In the first draft I focus on plot and dialog. I’ve found I rarely change either of these in the second draft. As long as I get the story from point A to point B in the first draft I’m happy. I’ve also recently observed that I rarely change dialog in subsequent drafts. I cut a lot, but the general voice of each character usually emerges directly from my head during the first draft and I just write as fast as I can, trying to listen to the story they are telling me.

This is why, during first drafts, that I often seem preoccupied to the outside world. Sometimes while I’m making dinner for my family I’m actually listening to two characters in my novels having a conversation in my head.

I finished the first draft of Black Sun Descending in a hotel room in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan while I was on tour for my most recently published novel The Third Riel Conspiracy.

Where Black Sun Descending was a daily struggle, The Same River Twice was smooth as the tongue of rapid slipping between boulders on a river. (I’m not sure if that metaphor worked.) I wrote the outline while on a plane to New York City for my full time job in conservation, and began writing the novel at 5am the first day I was there. That was late in May. There have been a few other business trips since, and the small matter of the Canmore flood in mid June that pushed me off my writing schedule, but otherwise this second first draft has proceeded quickly. Summer is a pretty easy time to get up early; the ravens are awake and serve as my alarm clock.

Both drafts need a lot of work. Both are short by most anybodies standards, and for me they are uncomfortably so. The Same River Twice is only 57,000 words (I can hear by publisher saying Thank God). They need some meat on their bones; that’s what the second draft is for. That starts tomorrow. Today I’m just writing a few blog posts – sport writing – that have also been banging around in my head for the last few months.

Writing two books in the same series back-to-back has been so rewarding that I’m going to do the same with both of my other mystery series. The continuity of working with the same characters, similar plot lines, and landscapes has been so much easier this way that I may continue this practice in the future.

The next two books in the Durrant Wallace series – one set in Vancouver during the great fire of 1886 and the next set in the Kooteney’s of BC’s interior at Fort Steele – will be next. Then I’ll write two books in the Cole Blackwater series – one set in Vancouver’s downtown east side that addresses human smuggling and sex trafficking and another that puts Cole’s daughter Sarah directly into the plot.

And there’s a half dozen other projects – mysteries, a standalone thriller, essays, and a book of photography – to turn my attention too.

My way of summary, here’s what I learned while penning these two first drafts back to back. None of it is really new, but I hope it’s helpful:

  1. Write an outline and follow it until the story itself makes a compelling case to go in a new direction.
  2. Don’t get distracted by other writing (which is why this is my second blog post in the last three and a half months).
  3. Have a routine. Write at the same time every day. Whatever works for you. Mine is early mornings and lots of tea.
  4. Write in layers: start with plot, ad dialog, character development, setting, etc as you proceed through subsequent drafts.
  5. Don’t worry if the first draft sucks. That’s its job. That’s why we get second and third and forty-fifth drafts, if that’s what it takes.