Compass and Square Holly McKenzie-Sutter
The Allure of the Wild Jenna Borisevich
Coming Home Neil MacIsaac
We, The Drowned Ian de Rege
Survival as an Immigrant Reema Kureishy
The Wild City Rhianna Jackson-Kelso
Our Local Wild Jonah Letovsky
The Wilds of TV Land Lia Schifitto
Wild, Once Wenting Li
14 Displacement Conservation Joanna Dowdell
Camera and Corruption Bronwyn Nisbet-Gray
34 At the Beach Catriona Spaven-Donn
The Strand Victoria College in the University of Toronto Spring Magazine March 2015 www.thestrand.ca
Art Director & Design Paula Razuri
Magazine Editor Emily Pollock
Acquisitions Lead Amanda Aziz
Senior Copy Editor Rhianna Jackson-Kelso
Designers Emily Pollock Grace Quinsey Kasra Koushan Paula Razuri Vivian Che
Copy Editors Anthony Burton Bronwyn Nisbet-Gray Catriona Spaven-Donn Holly McKenzie-Sutter Jacob McNair Olivia Dziwak
Cover Art & Illustrations Brandon Celi
Art & Photography Brandon Celi Emily Pollock Neil MacIsaac Paula Razuri Victoria Chuen Warren Goodwin Wenting Li
Writers Bronwyn Nisbet-Gray Catriona Spaven-Donn Holly McKenzie-Sutter Ian de Rege Jenna Borisevich Joanna Dowdell Jonah Letovsky Lia Schifitto Neil MacIsaac Reema Kureishy Rhianna Jackson-Kelso
Special thanks To all contributors, chocolate-covered potato chips, capitalism, and the Goldring cleaning staff for not openly pointing and laughing at us during those long production nights.
I have a lot of clothes with the word “Wild” printed on them. These weren’t clothes that I bought as a way to convey my true personality to the world; it was the name of my high school team: The Wild. Being the stellar athlete that I am, I collected a wide assortment of “Wild” gear during my four years in high school: t-shirts galore, an embarrassing visor, a sweater with “Wild Curling” on the chest, and a stolen field hockey stick with “wild” written on it in permanent marker. Thinking back on it, I deeply regret not getting the sweatpants with “Wild” printed across the butt. It wasn’t until well into the production of this magazine that I remembered that I had this big part of my life, labelled “Wild,” folded neatly in the wardrobe back at my parents’ house. In explaining this experience to my fellow editor, I remembered a lot of things that made my high school sound slightly bizarre. Robert Bateman is a trade school, so there were rusted-out cars eternally lingering in the parking lot. Head inside and one could follow a winding hallway toward a tiny room devoted to botanical studies only a couple of doors down from where 14-year-olds operated power tools. There was a courtyard where tiny children from the daycare would ride plastic bikes around a singular tree. Our detention room was home to a therapy rabbit called Bob, and we had a garden out back where we buried him when he died. At my school, the principal called herself Dumbledore-Westerby and would wear a cape and carry a makeshift sceptre during school events. We were divided into four houses, each with its own mascot (complete with terrifying homemade costumes). My high school was weird in many ways, but it was just normal, too. Many of our generous contributors to this spring’s incarnation of The Strand’s magazine have similarly considered “The Wild” to be something not necessarily labelled as such, but something that feels wild upon reflection. On page 24 you can read about remembering the country while navigating the city, or turn to page 6 for an account of the immigrant’s survival experience. On page 8 you can see our local wilderness in photographs. In terms of the natural wild, you can turn to page 14 to read about displacement-based conservation or page 16 for an account of the healing properties of nature. Wilderness and civilization collide on page 4, page 20 explores the wild sea, and on page 2 you can read about fearing the wilderness as a child. You can read about landscape in television on page 26 or turn to page 30 for a piece on the city as a character in film. Page 12 explores the feeling of the wild in graphic form and, finally, on page 34 you can read about solace in the wild. Thank you to all of our editors, contributors, and illustrators for making this magazine happen. We hope you have a pleasant reading experience that makes you reconsider the wilderness around you. Happy reading. - Paula Razuri
Compass and square How to make it through the wilderness as a child
Holly Mckenzie-Sutter illustration by Brandon Celi
hen I was five, I went to visit my grandparents for a weekend. It was my first big overnight trip without my parents, and it felt like a milestone in asserting my individual personhood outside my little nuclear family unit. At one point in the weekend, my grandfather (Poppa, or “Pop” as we usually called him) took me for a drive. We stopped at a forested area—I remember it was just at the side of the road—so he could give me a tour of a ravine where leeks grew. He explained what leeks were, detailed their nutritional value, and showed me how to identify them among the other plants in the ravine. To this day, I have no idea why he felt it was necessary to give me this lesson, but the visceral fear I felt on the lesson’s conclusion is something I never forgot. Pop had an instructional, soft-spoken conversational style and a tendency to ramble, so that even when the point of whatever he was talking about finally came around, we often weren’t entirely sure what he was getting at. The culmination of the leek field lesson was a doozy in Pop-ism History. “Now that you know this is here, if you ever get lost in the woods, you can just eat the leeks, and you’ll be okay until we come and find you.” I remember that he was partway up the hill when relaying this little truism, and I was petrified. He was going to forget about me. I was going to get lost in the leek field. I was going to have to dig up leeks to survive like a forest creature and I would never re-enter civilization. The possibility of getting lost in the leek field, or lost anywhere, had never crossed my mind before, and now that it had been suggested I was convinced it was going to happen. I pictured myself lying in a pile of dirty leaves for days until the rescue party came, and I was horrified when I realized that all of Pop’s plant-identifying lessons had left my memory. What if I forgot how to identify the leeks, accidentally ate a poisonous plant, and died? What if I rolled down the ravine and couldn’t climb back up? What if I was so buried by dirt and leaves and leeks that Gram and Pop couldn’t recognize me and I became one with the forest floor? These dark thoughts continued to plague me until mealtime, when my Grandma placed my dinner in front of me and pointed out that the over-boiled vegetable on my plate was one of the offending leeks. I was too scared to eat it. Pop didn’t mean to send me into an existential crisis questioning the stability of my place in civilized society. He just thought the leek field was a cool place and felt that the survival tips it offered would be useful for me to know. I guess at five years old, I wasn’t ready to accept that survival tips would ever be necessary for me. I had assumed that I would always be safe. What was special about Pop was that he was a protective figure who was unabashedly honest about the fact that he couldn’t protect us from everything, even when it was scary.
He was a guy who triumphed against nature, even when it seemed very unlikely that he would. He was an engineer, a shipbuilder employed by the Collingwood shipyard until its eventual closure. His career required him to design contraptions that allowed people to walk on water. At age 30, kidney disease almost took his life until a transplant bought him some more time. Specialists said he had 15 years maximum, which turned into 30. In the end, it wasn’t even his kidneys that failed, but the wear-and-tear of a lifetime of post-transplant medication that wore down his liver. At the time of his death in 2006, he was the longest-surviving recipient of a kidney transplant in Canada. He was also one of the first people in Canada to use an athome dialysis machine as opposed to making regular hospital visits. It wasn’t until years later, after he died, that I learned that the abnormally tall beds we always slept over in at Gram and Pop’s had been the beds he used to be confined to for hours, watching a machine process and clean his blood. I remember I was often scared of how long the fall would be if I rolled out of bed in the night. In retrospect, this in itself is a Pop-ism: the site of what must have been a terrifying, mortality-confronting experience for him turned into the place we slept at night. I would have slept there—or more likely, laid awake for long, painful hours—the night of the infamous leek incident. My Pop built his character on things that were a bit scary, but undeniably he was a person with whom you were at home. My Pop was a port in a storm. Despite conditioning a terrified response to leeks in me at a young age, he was always a rock, even when his health or his job or any number of life’s dangers threatened to unseat him. He was a figure who gave quiet lessons in how to find new, innovative, and odd ways to survive, even if you never thought you would have to. I hope I never get lost in the woods and have to harvest and consume wild vegetables as a means of survival. I hope I never have to struggle with organ failure and the stress of finding a transplant. As a kid, these stories scared me. As a (mostly) grown-up person, they still do. But these things happen, and thanks to my Pop, I know I’ll be equipped to handle any potential detours with dignity. I know who I want to imitate and follow out of the leek field if I ever need to. After the funeral, while sharing Pop stories with my siblings and cousins, we circled back to the ultimate symbol of Pop that he instilled in all of us—the Freemason’s crossed compass and square. I knew this symbol before I knew what it meant, because Pop felt it was good for all of us to know. Even now, what it means to me is the definition of a special man. He was always methodical, even if he took a while to get to the point. And, at the heart of all his ambiguous, rambling lessons, Pop was all about pointing us in the right direction if we ever got lost.
Coming HomE Seeing civilization and wilderness in an isolated place
Article and Photography by Neil MacIsaac
omhnall MacIsaac arrived on Prince Edward Island in 1802. The following year, he travelled a short distance from there to Cape Breton Island, where MacIsaacs have lived ever since. Domhnall was my great-great-great-great-grandfather. He arrived in East Bay and was likely the first Scottish settler on the island. The Highland Clearances in Scotland saw him and many others taken off their land and replaced with sheep, which must have stung. He was just about one year older than I am now. His native tongue was Gaelic. Although crossing the Atlantic was somewhat blasé by that time, he would not have known as much as some others, given where he came from. Cape Breton might be small, but a bastardized version of it still usually appears on a Risk board. The island of South Uist, however, is basically impossible to find unless you are looking at a map exclusively of the British Isles, and it is only easy to find if you are looking at a map of Northern Scotland. It sits in the Outer Hebrides and is home to fewer than 2,000 people. Yet the island has been continuously inhabited by humans since the Neolithic era—at one point by Vikings, and at another point by Domhnall MacIsaac. So it seems to have some sort of appeal. In the summer of 2013, MacIsaacs set foot on the island for the first time in over two centuries. My family and I travelled
there ahead of my sister’s graduation from the University of St Andrews. We went by ferry from Oban into the only thing on the island that could be called a community, Lochboisdale. It became rapidly apparent to me that even though displacement generally sucks, it definitely worked to our personal advantage in the long run. Which is not to say it is a bad place; it just isn’t a place that fits in with what most of Western civilization has going on. South Uist clearly was not put together by any planner, urban or otherwise. The single-lane roads meander without confidence, like the original pavers couldn’t decide between making things as straight as possible or moving with the terrain. Essentially, all the roads aside from the main one are long driveways. This looks particularly odd since the island is so literally windswept that there is almost zero vegetation that climbs higher than your waist; you can see most of the island from any given spot. One resident had gone to seemingly great pains to grow the only trees on the island, a small group of saplings. Early 3D videogame landscapes look natural by comparison. The dune-iness of the land also made it feel bizarre. It’d make sense if it were either all flat or all hills, but it was just “machair”—a term used to describe the bumpy plains of the Hebrides, which support only grass and wildflowers. You
Spending time on South Uist didn’t really feel like being far away from civilization. Rather, it felt like seeing civilization for what it really is, without any tricks.
what it really is, without any tricks. One evening we went to a site near a beach where there were remains of ancient roundhouses. The plaque said one had been inhabited continuously from around 1100 BCE to 200 BCE, making it one of the longest inhabited prehistoric houses on the globe, rebuilt only seven times. Once the consistent pressure of human existence was taken off it, all that was left was a general imprint of a circle and a few stones. It’s likely that this is the product of a sheltered life, but everywhere I’ve ever been has felt like people ruled it. Even in forests, oceans, mountains—places we’d normally consider to be wild. South Uist was the first place where it felt to me like people lived in nature, not in civilization or even on its frontiers. Nature and humanity, to the extent that they are distinct from each other, were closer there than anywhere else I had been in my life. It didn’t look like a society or a nation or even a collective. It just looked like people trying. But that’s humanity. In the grand scheme of things, we are just visiting. Just tourists. We tough it out as best we can where we can and then depart, with the land courteous enough to accommodate some remnant of our stay. Civilization is this scheme to make something.
were never not standing on some incline, aside from the coast and beach where most people had settled. Their houses were sparsely arranged but were of modern design, so it looked like some SimCity deity had decided against certain roads and residences, leaving a skeleton of what used to be. Outside of the port we arrived at, the only consistent sound was wind in your ears. My interest in the island’s structure has come mostly from remembrance rather than experience. While we were there, of more interest to us tourists were the signs of older life. The inn we stayed at featured proximity to a Neolithic stone as a selling point. Imagine Stonehenge, but shrunk down to a third of its size. Also take away all but one of the stones, and you have the Polochar Stone, which the tourist’s page for the Hebrides claims “probably dates to around 2000 BC.” A visit to a cemetery yielded no long-lost MacIsaacs. Ormacleit Castle, which once housed the chief of our clan (technically we’re also a branch of a larger clan, and neither clan is actually called MacIsaac… never mind, I don’t really get it either), turned out to be more like a decent-sized farmhouse, albeit made of stone, ruined, and totally unadorned. Spending time on South Uist didn’t really feel like being far away from civilization. Rather, it felt like seeing civilization for
Why did you move to Canada? “The education system back
Reema Kureishy Photography by Victoria ChueN Immigration is a risky, high-stakes game. You uproot your family and your home to settle in a new country—and based on what? The promise of a better life, of course. “A better life” can mean almost anything, from providing better education for your children to seeking refuge from wars and dictatorial governments. There are absolutely no guarantees you will make it once you immigrate, especially if you don’t know anyone or can’t speak the language. There’s no way to know how long it will take before you achieve the life you envisioned for yourself when you first filled out your application to come to Canada.
home was not sufficient for my children. We had to escape.… For a better life.” It’s not fair to make too many general statements about the nature of immigration in Canada because there are so many diverse experiences. People come here from all walks of life. Some immigrants may adjust readily to this new climate and culture, while others could go to their graves without ever having felt truly “settled.” One thing can be said definitively, however: it’s not easy starting up a new life in a new country, no matter where you come from. The degree of ease depends on factors like age, economic background, and support systems like friends and family. But chances are, you are going to face numerous roadblocks on your path. First you must apply to get into the country. The chances of being let in have become slimmer with recent changes in immigration policy, which add several restrictions to make potential applicants “inadmissible.” You may have a serious health condition that would make you a liability to Canada’s healthcare system, or you may have been charged with a crime in your home country. It is only getting harder to become a part of Canadian society. Even if you have been accepted as a Canadian resident, the road is anything but smooth from there. First, there’s the job situation. Finding a position in your field often means going through a slew of jobs that are nowhere close to your profession. You know that classic narrative of a professor having to become a taxi driver upon coming to Canada? It’s often true for many professional immigrants who rely on minimum wage until an opportunity in their field presents itself. You can see where it gets complicated. It’s a well-known fact that in Toronto, low-income and marginalized groups suffer from inefficient social services and rising housing costs. Newcomers can become trapped in this system, since the inability to find a well-paying job pushes them into neglected inner-city neighbourhoods. Again, this could be very different from what they envisioned before moving to Canada. With a job barely covering family expenses and substandard housing conditions, immigrants become part of a broken system that is very hard to escape. The emotional stress of a new environment and the isolation of a city like Toronto can also be crippling. My family first moved to an apartment building in the Keele and Finch area,
which wasn’t exactly a close-knit community. We didn’t have family or friends nearby, and long-distance calls provided the only form of comfort. There were a few Indian and Pakistani families in the building, who were immediately excited to find more people from the subcontinent. These were people we had nothing in common with except for our national identity. This too is a survival tactic—gravitate towards people from your own culture to make the move easier, to find some semblance of home, of community. Finally, you endure all the changes and become a Canadian citizen. However, nothing can predict if you will ever feel at home or not. Immigrants now occupy a different environment. Chances are, as an immigrant you will swing back and forth between feeling settled and feeling alienated. Because, as the common question goes, “Where are you really from?” Immigration can be tough, isolating, and depressing. It can involve low-paying jobs, sleepless nights, lack of government support, and the paradox of needing “Canadian job experience.” And yet, people still want this opportunity. Perhaps it’s human nature to dive into unknown situations, especially when there’s a chance you may succeed. When my family moved here from Dubai, my parents resolved that if nothing worked out after a year and if they weren’t able to find jobs, we would head back to Dubai. We never got to that point, but we had the privilege and the savings to do that if needed. Many immigrants don’t. There was a little mall in Mississauga where I worked a few years ago. The same community members would come there each day. One particular group of people, all around 60 years of age, would often converge upon this one bench beside my store. They were mostly from India and Pakistan (Mississauga has a large South Asian community) and would sometimes talk to me. They discussed “back home,” a place that they said they would return to in a heartbeat. Yet, they still remained here. Perhaps they knew it was an idealized vision of their home countries that they carried around with them. Or perhaps they were now so embedded within their Canadian community that it would be hard to leave it and go back at this point in their life—maybe even harder than it was to come here in the first place.
WILD: a field guide
Jonah Letovsky COVER PHOTO VICTORIA CHuen
ofT’s St. George campus is a simple square grid, which makes navigation easy. Unfortunately, it also means that it offers few opportunities to walk to class directly, diagonally or otherwise. This has always driven me crazy, as I’m chronically late and therefore always in search of shortcuts between buildings. In the course of that search, I’ve come across the transitional spaces on campus—the alleys, pathways, and passages that make up the edges and the in-between. They form our local wilderness.
i. The Economics BUilding This alley feels in part like a soft entrance to campus. It lacks the pomp and formality of St. George at Bloor or Harbord at Spadina, but is an almost direct route to get from, say, Bloor & Spadina down to Robarts. On the west side are the backyards of a few private homes that UofT doesn’t own, but on the east side you face the Economics building and Innis College and their courtyards. It’s an organic transition between Toronto and UofT. While most alleys in Toronto exist unnamed, this one is called bpNichol Lane. It hosts a home and a printing press, proof that our urban wild spaces can, in fact, be tamed.
II ii. Trinity, Rotman, Massey The alley or pathway that winds behind the Rotman School, Massey College, and St. Hilda’s always makes you feel a little like you’re not supposed to be there. It is the intersection of three major centres of influence on campus—the backyard of Rotman’s financial titans, Massey’s political and philosophical thought leaders, and the high achievers of Trinity. It also offers a fantastic melange of architectural styles—contemporary, modern, and Georgian— and embodies the “messiness” of St. George campus. If you need to go east or west, it’s also a great shortcut north of Hoskins.
iii. Philosopher’s walk For Vic students, this is probably one of the most useful pathways on campus. It also reveals the back side of the buildings that dominate our landscape. While not wild in the traditional “green,” overgrown sense, it’s a route that’s little used and dominated by service entrances and loading docks, and therefore mostly hostile to the casual pedestrian. Walking past a parking lot, you pass the old brick Varsity field house and suddenly find yourself in lush Philosopher’s Walk. Continue through the dark passageway between the ROM and McLaughlin Planetarium, dominated by delivery trucks, and you find yourself at busy Queen’s Park Crescent.
iv. The ColoNnade While the northern, southern, and western edges of campus offer clear distinctions between city and university, the edges around Vic and St. Mike’s are much blurrier. One of the reasons that Vic, in particular, is such a wealthy college is that it allowed development on much of its land through the 1960s and ‘70s. Now, Vic buildings sit side-by-side with condos, office buildings, and large apartment towers. In part, that means that there aren’t many clear connections from Vic to Bloor. But if you’re willing to explore some alleys and other wild, “unseen” spaces, you’ll find useful hidden pathways, like this route from the Goldring Student Centre through The Colonnade to Yorkville.
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Displacement Conservation: Necessary Measure or Invalid Model?
Joanna Dowdell Illustration by brandon celi
It is a generally accepted fact in ecological science that Earthâ€™s biosphere is currently experiencing its sixth major mass extinction event. Much of this mass extinction can be attributed to human activities, and as more evidence of human culpability
is discovered, it is no wonder that more and more people are embracing biodiversity conservation efforts. Indeed, in the environmental campaigns of the modern era, the issue of the conservation of natural lands has been important and prominent.
However, despite the general consensus that certain natural areas should be set aside and protected from the threat of urbanization and industrial development, the different methods of implementing such a system are widely disputed. The main processes of localized environmental protection currently under global debate are displacement-based versus place-based conservation. Displacement-based conservation encompasses any form of biodiversity preservation that comes at the cost of evacuating local communities, whereas place-based strategies involve working with local communities in a more human-centered approach. Though both methods have been used in practice and have led to relative protection of the intended areas, the stark contrast between these two techniques leads one to wonder what new problems are being created in the interest of solving another. The largest problem with displacement-based conservation is that although it may be practised with good ecological intentions, proponents of such conservation often fail to see the economic and social impact of displacing human populations. Many of the areas being preserved are poverty-stricken regions where citizens rely on local resources for subsistence living, and it is simply not reasonable to take them from this land in the absence of economic alternatives. A good example of this is the Maasai tribe, who were forced to leave much of the Maasai Mara land between Kenya and Tanzania in which they lived and farmed cattle, even though their agricultural practices are not very ecologically damaging. As someone who has previously volunteered in the Maasai Mara, I can verify that the Maasai live a very ecologically conscious way of life. They have much to teach environmentalists about how human beings can live with ecosystems instead of fencing them off from modern life. The second largest problem with displacement-based conservation is that it does not allow for help or input from locals, who in all likelihood know the biodiversity of the area better than any NGO wishing to preserve it. These issues can be accurately summed up in a statement from Dr. David Barton Bray of the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University: “People defend places from which they derive their livelihoods and their identity.” If conservation organizations focused on strategies that educate locals about moderate resource use and alternative incomes, as
well as employing local workers to patrol and manage protected areas, both social and ecological causes would benefit. For example, in southeastern Mexico there is a community-managed forest that has been found to have the lowest land-use change recorded in the region, even lower than “protected” areas, while still producing timber to support the local community economically. In this way, approaches of place-based conservation have the potential to solve localized social and ecological problems at the same time, without the expense of relocating indigenous human populations. Coercive, displacement-based conservation can also be described as a conservation method in which indigenous groups are indirectly politically forced into situations they did not originally want. Usually, this means forcing the populations from their land in an effort to preserve local biodiversity, often creating communities that define themselves as “conservation refugees.” This raises the challenges of finding new lands for such groups, who will undoubtedly attempt to continue the same way of life even in a new space. In addition, these communities are ultimately the groups who know the most about the land in question and how to manage biodiversity in the area, and their opinions and knowledge should be seriously considered in the protection of the land. For example, in the mountain villages of Thailand, many indigenous Thai people have become conservation refugees, when their only offense against local wildlife was engaging in small, rotational agriculture. These people could have aided the entering organizations in their local biodiversity preservation but were not given the opportunity to do so. A community-based approach would have the advantage of not displacing such indigenous groups, as well as enhancing the preservation abilities of the conservation organizations in affected areas. Community-based conservation methods mean that government groups and NGOs will have less control over the area and will have to work more closely with local people to reach consensus, but ultimately the benefits of such approaches outweigh the costs. In an age when biodiversity loss is occurring at alarmingly high rates, it is easy to be swept into believing that ecological protection at any measure is a worthwhile pursuit. However, if we are to work toward an age of greater equality, we cannot manipulate the rights of protected spaces to further the mistreatment of marginalized communities.
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The Allure of The Wild a romantic and beguiling refuge
jenna Borisevich Illustration by brandon celi photography by paula razuri
it in the bush,” consume what they can vicariously through film and literature. But what is it exactly about nature that we find so enticing? Why do men and women abandon the comfort of their homes to immerse themselves in the unremitting wilderness? If I were to theorize an answer to this question based on my own experiences and the literature I’ve read on the subject, I would argue that there are two considerable factors that establish the allure of the wild: a desire to develop a certain kinship with the land away from modern society, and a fundamental longing for heightened introspection and personal development. Henry David Thoreau, an acclaimed American author and naturalist, dedicated pages upon pages of his work to the inviolability of nature and its superiority over a rapidly industrializing society. He seemed to prioritize the former of these two motives. In his journal, Thoreau wrote that he loved nature because “… she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her… she is freedom to me…”
Inherently alluring, the wild elicits an almost compulsory, if not fated curiosity within us. It arouses the imagination, and we are consequently drawn to it. This particular curiosity resides within me constantly and is all the more prevalent when I’m trapped indoors or drudging miserably through grey snow banks on my way to class. Now, I’m no Cheryl Strayed or Jon Krakauer. I haven’t hiked the Pacific Crest Trail or climbed the Devils Thumb. I’m just a 20-year-old wannabe adventurer whose idealization of the wild manifested as early as a fervent reading of Hatchet in the fifth grade. My outdoor jargon is rudimentary, and my experiences with hiking, climbing, and camping are incomparable to those of the vagabond heroes I’ve come to admire in films or novels and in real life—not to mention automatically subject to a Western bias. I may not be a wilderness connoisseur (few people are, after all), but my pursuit of nature as a form of escapism is nothing out of the ordinary. Thousands of individuals with varying incentives regularly embark on genuine adventures into the wild. Others, not quite up to “roughing
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I found similar reasoning in the works of Jon Krakauer, a contemporary American writer and mountaineer. While Krakauer’s writing style is entirely different from Thoreau’s romantic variety, he does share Thoreau’s emphasis on nature’s primitive beauty. According to him, “An extended stay in the wilderness inevitably directs one’s attention outward as much as inward, and it is impossible to live off the land without developing both a subtle understanding of and a strong emotional bond with that land and all it holds.” Both Thoreau and Krakauer’s philosophies ring true with me. Nature is my refuge from human noise. Out there, hours slip away like minutes. The customary clutter of routine is replaced with a sort of serenity that endures through the physical exertion of a hike or a climb. Out there, I’m able to retreat from the buzzing noise of the city; its hubbub and clamour are replaced with tranquility and the beauty of the landscape. Out there, I feel like a real human being, indisputably connected to the world around me. For certain people, Thoreau and Krakauer’s simple understanding of nature within the world at large is enough to propel an undertaking into the wilderness. It’s about what it feels like to really walk in the wild—to see the sky and the earth and to feel the dirt beneath the sturdy soles of hiking boots. Sometimes, however, there is another stimulus at play. In some cases, a mere connection with the land is insufficient, and it is the desire for self-exploration that prompts travellers to embark on their respective adventures. It was precisely this thirst for introspection that inspired Cheryl Strayed, writer of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, to set out on her arduous hike. She ventured into the wild with a fundamental belief that the incontestable beauty of nature could mend her broken heart and shed light on the darkness that had otherwise absorbed her life. “Each night the black sky and bright stars were my stunning companions,” she writes in Wild. “…I’d see their beauty and solemnity so plainly that I’d realize… I felt something growing in me that was strong and real.” In
her book, Strayed describes mustering every ounce of courage to set out on her risky, if not preposterous adventure. Until she decided to take on the Pacific Crest Trail, she was a self-proclaimed “free spirit who never had the balls to be free.” By the time Strayed had walked a thousand miles to complete the trail, her insides had been gathered up into something whole. It is easy to romanticize the wild from afar when the stories we hear are largely successful and inspiring, but the wilderness can be dreary, desolate, and dangerous as much as it can be strikingly beautiful. Chris McCandless, a young adventurer like Cheryl Strayed, did not survive his excursion. His intent was to strike out into the Alaskan wilderness and test himself in the most authentic of human conditions. McCandless firmly believed that the core of human spirit was derived from new experiences, and he was determined to submit himself entirely to this final adventure. McCandless was 66 pounds when he was found. The official cause of his death was starvation. McCandless’ premature demise serves as a dismal warning of the palpable dangers that reside in the wild and a reminder that preparedness is crucial for any exploit there. Though McCandless is often criticized for his arrogant approach to nature, Jon Krakauer defends his intentions in Into the Wild. Krakauer claims that, “unlike Muir and Thoreau, McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul.” He also asserts that McCandless’ need to set out into the wild was prompted by his tendency to overthink. “Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world,” Krakauer writes, “to figure out why people were so bad to each other.” Like Strayed, McCandless set out intending to achieve peace of mind. From what I’ve read of McCandless’ diary entries, McCandless seemed completely enamoured of his natural environment. Despite possessing the slight cockiness prevalent in many intelligent youths his age, McCandless appeared to have an insightful and strong grasp of the human condition.
I can definitely understand Strayed and McCandless’ recognition of the wilderness as a purer state of existence. There’s no room for an ego in the wild, no room for pretenses. As a result, I believe that a retreat into nature can illuminate the true core of an individual’s identity. Furthermore, the healing agency of nature certainly carries weight with me. Nature has the wonderful ability to calm my own tendency to overthink. My mind finally gets quiet. Whirring thoughts and competing anxieties are silenced by an overwhelming clarity of purpose. No more, “You’re not living enough or doing enough or trying enough, and did you turn off the kitchen light by the way?” For a brief moment, I feel at home with myself. I feel entirely focused. Ultimately, it isn’t entirely important what specific motivation incites a person into the wild. A retreat into the wilderness is for the willful, wild-hearted, and well-informed. It is for those who desire to become lost in the expanse of fresh air or to relish in the veiled sunlight bouncing off a lonely, salty shore. It is for those who want to breathe in the heady scent of pine on snowy slopes after an avalanche, and for those who recognize and respect its splendour with a complete understanding of its accompanying danger. It’s for those who can tolerate swatting mosquitoes off their sweaty faces while pushing aside determinedly thorny bushes. For those who can ignore the relentless, beating sun. Nature is my preferred form of escapism because despite the discomfort, despite the uneasiness, you’re surrounded by effervescent beauty and absolute honesty. When I’m out there I feel alive, I feel vulnerable, and I feel human.
We, the Drowned
Folklore and the Sea-faring Dead
Ian de RegE Photography by Paula Razuri
n Carsten Jensen’s 2006 novel We, the Drowned, plotted over a century’s history of the Danish village of Marstal, many generations of characters go to sea. Few return home from that wilderness. The sea, while vital to the survival of Marstal, is also responsible for countless deaths. Jensen’s novel was quite successful, and for good reason: we love tales of the sea, and we are surrounded by them. We know the Titanic’s history and Franklin’s desperate search for the Northwest Passage. We hear tales of abandoned sailors struggling to be seen by passing ships, marooned mutineers, or the horrific accounts of illegally trafficked slaves chained together and thrown overboard. Recently, stories of immigrants adrift in the Mediterranean have dominated the news. And, of course, we love nautical works of fiction, from Odysseus and Crusoe to Gilligan’s Island or even Lost. The examples are endless. The point in fact is that our collective history (and, therein, our folklore) is as full of nautical lore as the sea is full of the dead. Seawater and old bones lend themselves rather well to folk tales. This is no surprise, given both the necessity of water to human life and the numbers of people who have taken to and drowned
in the sea over the years. Through much of history, the majority of Europe’s sailors could not swim—it would be a kinder death to simply drown, rather than stay afloat for days before dying of exhaustion or thirst. Not wanting to upset the gods of the sea, the odd drowning was seen as a natural sacrifice, and so sailors would not necessarily intervene to rescue their comrades. Our insatiable desire for the sea is matched only by our gruesome fascination with disaster. The sea has offered more tales of mysterious disappearances and bizarre worlds for millennia than outer space has—indeed, the sea was the “final frontier” until relatively recently. Even with the recent onslaught of modern technology and scientific understanding, the depths of the sea remain in some places more alien than distant planets. And sometimes we want to hold on to the unknown anyways. As Peter D. Jeans put it in his wonderful compendium, Seafaring Lore & Legend, “People often prefer to have and hold an enigma.” Burial at sea has long been a favoured funerary custom. During the height of the Age of Sail (approximately 1600-1850), European navies tended to follow the same general rules. A sailor’s body would be sewn into canvas, sometimes his hammock, as a makeshift coffin. A common superstition was that the final stitch went through the nose—to make sure he was, in fact, dead. Weights, like old cannonballs, would be added to ensure his corpse wouldn’t float. Religious texts would often be read, to send his soul in the right direction, and the body recommitted to the deep. But what about when there was no one left to bury the dead? A popular legend tells of the schooner Jenny, a ship whose fate and dis-
But what about when there was no one left to bury the dead?
covery is particularly chilling. In the ocean between Antarctica and either South America or Australia, the story goes, a whaler under the command of one Captain Brighton came across a mysterious ship which seemed to come from out of the great walls of ice found in that miserable part of the sea. Brighton and his men could make out at least seven sailors on deck, whom they hailed in vain: upon reaching the Jenny, they found every man to be frozen solid. Brighton found the captain writing in the ship’s log, but upon trying to talk to him found him, too, to be long dead. The last entry in the log was dated many years prior and explained that there had been no food for months: “I am the only one left alive.” Trapped in the unforgiving ice of the Southern Ocean, the Jenny had remained isolated, derelict, and frozen for decades before she was found. While the authenticity of this tale is unconfirmed, it is nonetheless a grim reminder that it can take years for lost souls to be found—if they ever are. How many more ships and souls, trapped in the cruel, relentless wild, wait to be found? It seems that on occasion the nautical dead leave Davy Jones’ Locker and return to the surface. The ghosts of either men or ships often appear as warnings to the living that they are headed for disaster—the famed Flying Dutchman among them. Omens of doom are commonplace in all folklore. In We, the Drowned, an elderly sailor has visions of the upcoming deaths of the young men of his town, all of which come to pass. Haunted ships are haunted houses in their own rights. A modern account of the haunting of a cruise ship describes a berth filled with
seaweed and saltwater—similar to, say, the ghost in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, who covers the walls in blood. Maritime poltergeists might untie sails or open windows during storms, leading to extensive damage, if not death. For phantoms closer to home, we have the ghost ships of the Saint Lawrence. During 18th-century territorial wars between France and England, a storm destroyed an English fleet who, some say, can still be seen in those waters. In Inuit mythology, the underworld is in the depths of the sea and is ruled by Sedna, goddess of both. On his latest solo album, Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle has a song called “Laying Down to Perish,” which was inspired by a strange artifact he saw once in a Newfoundland museum: a fishing gaff with the words “lay down to perish” and four names carved into it. The story of the artifact follows four men on a fishing trip who became stranded out on the ice once the tide came in. Knowing they wouldn’t survive nature, they carved their message into the tool and let the sea take it, knowing it would eventually wash ashore and tell their families what happened. Otherwise, they would have been like the crew of the Jenny, lost to the sea with no guarantee of ever being found. The point of including this final story here is twofold. First, it offers a touching look into the final mindsets of those resigned to their watery graves. Second, it is a perfect example of how folk traditions evolve and carry on through stories, songs, and artifacts. Folklore is intrinsic and, much like water, vital to humanity. Ghosts are often thought of as wandering the earth searching for a way home. From the depths of the sea and across the vastness of the ocean, the drowned come back to rest forever in our stories.
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When you live in the country, like I did for the majority of my childhood, learning to navigate the wilderness constitutes a way of life. Where I’m from, tiny villages and towns are separated, like so many islands, by kilometres of forest and field. Public transit is non-existent, and the list of things within walking distance generally only includes your mailbox (which in many cases is still at the end of a kilometre-long driveway). Getting anywhere without a car is pretty much impossible, unless you’re up for a very long hike. Even then, most businesses shut down by 7 PM on weekdays. Time and distance work against the intrepid explorer.
The Wild City LEARNING TO NAVIGATE THE CITY AS A COUNTRY GIRL
Rhianna Jackson-Kelso ILLUSTRATION by Brandon Celi Photography by Victoria ChUEN
Though Toronto is only three hours away from my hometown, I experienced a lot of culture shock when I moved here for university. The nights were no longer oppressively dark and quiet; each street glowed with life and electricity. My new Torontonian friends’ nonchalant attitudes toward such wondrous inventions as the subway and 24-hour grocery stores continuously baffled me. While my tiny, 500-person village had had one poorly stocked food mart, there were now hundreds of grocery stores and restaurants within walking distance of my residence. Three dollars and a comfortable pair of shoes could get me to an incredible range of places. I felt like an explorer who had suddenly been granted an uncharted ocean and unmitigated access to a boat. The strangest difference for me, however, was how many of these friends did not have—and had no desire to obtain—a driver’s license. I soon learned that for many people my age in Toronto, driving was a largely superfluous skill. But when you grow up in a place where going anywhere other than your house or to school requires begging your parents to give you a ride, earning that little plastic rectangle feels like sprouting wings. I still remember vividly the sense of explosive freedom I had the first time I drove alone; instead of feeling confined by all those miles of wilderness, for the first time I felt a mastery over them. In my first few weeks getting to know the city, this sense of freedom expanded unchecked until I felt as though the streets themselves might bend to my will, if I so wished it. My first encounter with urban wilderness, which I would soon come to know just as well as the wilderness of my childhood, was halfway through September of first year. I had been out with some friends at a restaurant for a birthday party, and by the time we headed back it was relatively late. I hung back for a moment outside the entrance to wait for one of our group who had gone to use the washroom. As I waited, someone strode up to me, angry and loud, and began to yell sexual obscenities. The city had always seemed so close and full of people, but in those few moments I felt as though I were stranded in open water. The man was standing between me and my friends, and I had to dash around him in a wide circle to get back to safety. He continued to yell at me until one of my male friends, the only one who had noticed what was happening, grabbed my arm and guided me away. Getting from place to place in the country often involves making concessions for safety. Snow days are par for the course, since most people don’t live in towns but in isolated houses connected by narrow, winding dirt roads. These roads are often rendered impassable by snow or freezing rain, so bus cancellations become less a safety precaution and more an issue of survival. Driving at night means moving slowly in constant fear of hitting a wild animal. Many of my friends and family, myself included, have sustained damage to their vehicles or persons in such collisions with nature. Throughout high school, “There was a bear in my yard” was an acceptable and not entirely infrequent excuse for missing class.
While I was home for Christmas this year, my neighbour told us she had started carrying a gun when she went out at night to care for her horses—the coyotes in the area were becoming a little too bold. She and some other local farmers had begun to discuss the possibility of illegally culling them, just in case. When I was 11, my best friend had a sleepover in her backyard. She lived in a small house bordered by thick forest, and our tent was wellstocked with junk food. Before her mother retreated to the house for the night, she advised us how to deal safely with bears. “Make lots of noise,” she told us. “If you see one, don’t offer it any food. Most importantly, don’t go outside by yourselves.” Bear sightings in that area were rare, so I doubt there was any real danger. But lately, when I’m walking home alone at night, I find myself remembering that advice. Recently, I travelled to Ottawa with some friends for a conference. We went out for drinks one night a few blocks from the hotel. I wasn’t having a great time, and before long I decided to head home. Though two of my friends left with me, my desire to be alone made me push ahead. In the three blocks between leaving them and reaching the hotel, I was harassed by three separate groups of men. The first group blocked my path halfway through a construction tunnel and refused to let me proceed until I gave them my opinion on their “date-ability.” The second group stood behind me while I waited for the crosswalk and mimed sex
acts. The third group literally ran me off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic. One of them attempted to hit me in the face. Halfway through this trek I had ducked into a convenience store to get my bearings. The respite was brief, and the thin bubble of safety the well-lit space created felt small and tenuous. I recalled the times in my childhood when I would swim out to the raft at my cottage. I was always too scared to swim back by myself, out of my element and fearful of what big fish might be lurking in the dark waters below. When I moved to the city, I thought I had left behind that archipelago of accessible space that had characterized my youth. But ever since that first incident, I am constantly reminded that my environment still restricts me. Instead of worrying that the store will close before I have a chance to buy dinner, I worry it will be too late to walk home by myself. Instead of bracing for wild animals in the road when I travel, I brace for catcalls. I no longer rely on my parents or a car to help me reach my destination, but on the support and safety provided by my friends. Although I had hoped that moving to Toronto would increase my freedom rather than restrict it, I’ve since learned that, for women, urban existence constitutes its own kind of wilderness. Despite my pessimistic outlook, ultimately I believe the dual skill sets I’ve developed for navigating country and city will serve me well. If my experience living in both environments has taught me anything, it’s that you will face some form of wilderness no matter where you go. The intrepid explorer always prepares herself with a map.
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The Wilds of TV Land:
New mexico on the small screen Article by Lia Schifitto Photography by Warren Goodwin When we watch TV, we expect to be entertained. But to be transported is something unique. It happens, though, unintentionally and intentionally, in the landscape and geography of certain television shows. Think about what a showâ€™s setting entails: a collection of various locations, weather, climate, different types of flora and fauna, desert, water, mountains. These factors are not meant to play a central role, but are part of the literal and figurative background of the showâ€™s storyline. However, exposing the eye to such images each episode facilitates a broad sensory experience of the sights, sounds, and even smells in which these shows exist.
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The pinnacle of such an experience of cinematic space, in my opinion, is AMC’s Breaking Bad. The show opens with anti-hero Walter White ripping down a dirt road in a rundown RV in the middle of the desert, with breathtaking mountain vistas making up the background. Throughout the show’s six seasons, New Mexico’s landscape gets its fair share of screen time. To me, the natural landscape is just as fascinating as the human characters in the show, if not more so. It is simply impossible to ignore because it permeates the identity of the series. Breaking Bad is shot almost entirely in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the show’s setting brings to life the regionalism that exists in this distinct landscape in real life. New Mexico is located along the border of Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the culture of the state’s neighbor has a strong presence throughout the show. From Mexican food and music to the
frequent use of Spanish dialogue, the show’s viewers get a real sense of the dual cultural identity that has come to embody not just New Mexico, but the entire southwestern United States. Broadly speaking, culture is influenced by the natural world it has developed in. As a concept, regionalism, as the name might imply, concerns a specific region. It includes the people of this region, their ideas, their language, their identity. However, in the modern world, we seem to forget the natural landscape in which we have established such an identity. We underestimate its powerful connection to who we are and our way of life. And it is so hard to describe in words the complex relationship between a group of people and their surroundings. Bringing together cinematic creativity and everyday activities that embody the region in an audio-visual medium such
Culture is influenced by the natural world it has developed in
as television offers a vivid reality to the viewer. In a way, we almost feel like we are really there. There is a careful and finely honed depiction of Albuquerque throughout Breaking Bad. It is found in little things, like the tanned faces and blistering sunshine visible indoors and out in almost every daytime scene. It is in the Mexican restaurant Jesse eats at with his girlfriend. It is in the orange mountain ranges perched in the distance while Walter teaches his son to drive. We get a sense of the region in more dramatic ways, as well. It is the outdoors that allows much of the show’s criminal activity to occur, in the truest sense of the American outlaw. Breaking Bad is centered on the production and trafficking of crystal meth, and the wide open expanses away from law enforcement’s careful eye create opportunities for criminal behaviour. Unavoidably, much of the chaos and drug trade-related violence in the show is made possible by these natural expanses, a consequence also witnessed in this region in real life. Instead of being told of the region’s natural environment and how it plays into the life of the characters, we
are shown. The audience is given the ability to push aside preconceived notions of the region created by the American media’s portrayal of immigration and the country’s substantial Hispanic population. With fresh eyes, we come to understand and even appreciate the uniqueness of the American Southwest, both of its culture and its landscape. Breaking Bad magnifies the power of cinema to create an ethnographic window to the wonderfully diverse regions that make up not only the US, but also our international community. Furthermore, it celebrates the age-old relationship humankind has to nature, a relationship which we will hopefully continue to have for years to come—if we do not ruin what little earth is still untouched by industrialization and constant modernization, that is. Regionalism is made possible by human interaction and the appreciation of one’s surroundings, not just interaction alone. I think we owe Breaking Bad a thank you: its production team has, in its own way, preserved something in the wilds of New Mexico which may not be there in generations to come.
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CamerA Corruption: Radical form & ideology in J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year
Bronwyn Nisbet-Gray Illustration by Brandon Celi J.C. Chandor’s 2014 film A Most Violent Year follows Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) as he negotiates a business deal to purchase an oil terminal located on Brooklyn’s East River. Abel has 30 days from the signing date to pay the cost of the property in full, or risk losing his 40% down payment. However, a criminal investigation brought against Abel’s company, Standard Heating & Oil, complicates his ability to receive traditional bank loans. Abel must then acquire the funds through less conventional (and less legal) means. Abel is an immigrant, a husband to his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), a father to three daughters, and a rising industrialist who, by all appearances, has captured the American Dream. But, as the title suggests, Abel’s New York is less than hospitable. The film takes place in the first few weeks of 1981, a year that saw an unprecedented (and not since reached) number of murders and robberies in New York City. Abel faces competition within a corrupt industry where undercutting costs, robbery, and money laundering are means of survival. AMVY casts New York as a viscer-
al, violent character within the story and suggests that the city’s temperament both influences and is influenced by its characters. The film opens with a fade from black to an elastic tracking shot of pavement that whirls around to show a quiet, unassuming suburban neighbourhood. This is followed by a cut to Abel, featured in long shot, running through the neighbourhood. This camera work causes the viewer to immediately question what Abel is running away from and what he is running toward, as well as establishing the film’s deliberate pacing. This type of long take, wide angled, and free moving cinematography comes to typify Chandor’s film, often positioning the city not just as a place where action happens, but also as a space that is itself active. Static character close-ups juxtapose this sense of movement throughout space and suggest that the characters possess
control, while the space remains unfixed. Chandor favours point-of-view shots that tie the viewer’s experience of the filmic space to character subjectivity, thus allowing the film’s image to explain character emotion and action. Extensive camera movement allows the film to unfasten the viewer and establish a more complete view of the filmic image—in this case placing the viewer as if directly within the setting itself. The use of shaky, handheld camera work indicates that there is something distinctly unbalanced and chaotic about the space, and consequently about the characters who
employees. Consequently, the cycles of violence and corruption that plague the city are perpetuated and justified as means of survival. Part of what makes AMVY so effective as a film about corruption and collapse is its use of the form of the film as a tool for relaying theme. The jarring camera movement, decentred framing, and construction of colour motifs bring attention to the way the film was made, that the film is a film, not simply a reflection of reality. When watching this film, it is impossible to ignore the deliberate placement of the camera, to act like the film’s visual world is neutral. Unlike the tendency in classical Hollywood cinema to erase the influence of form on the narrative, this film employs the radical style as a political message. AMVY’s impact on the viewer is twofold: the film is both a story about how places and eras are shaped by the people who inhabit them, but also a story about how corruption and decay can easily be masked by the right frame. While the plot and story present corruption as a hidden phenomenon, the film’s aesthetic style insists that corruption is present, almost omnisciently so, in the physical realm of the film. Effectively, the film’s narrative tendencies understand the New York space as a form of narrator that shapes the experience of the viewer. Throughout the film, New York becomes itself a character, both imposing itself into the life of the protagonist and changing throughout the film. Instead of remaining a backdrop to the film’s action, the city space comes to shape how its characters behave, but is also shaped by its people. The cycles of violence that exist in the film are a product of the inhabitants, but the city’s violent nature similarly supports the violence. In many ways, Abel’s greatest opponent is the city itself. New York, so often painted as a vision of order, civilization, and control, becomes wild and chaotic, recalling both the film noir, with its preoccupation with the dirty and dark city landscape, as well as the western, with its expansive shots of the new frontier. AMVY becomes a mash-up of the different visions of America imposed onto an otherwise iconic setting. But the thing about the New York of Chandor’s film is that it’s an almost addictive place, one that its people love. Despite how dangerous, dirty, or corrupt the city looks or feels, there remains something almost charismatic about the film’s setting, and what becomes memorable about the film is how Abel’s story of collapse, disaster, and eventual rise mirrors the story of New York—a city that has suffered through periods of intense crime, financial collapse, and natural disaster, yet still remains iconic for its successes.
Chandor presents New York as a paradox: manoeuvrable by its residents, but manipulative of those who live within it. inhabit it. Through the use of cinematographic properties specifically, the city transforms from a neutral background into a subjective character that influences both plot development and how the viewer reads onscreen action. Through the pointed construction of space, Chandor presents New York as a paradox: manoeuvrable by its residents, but manipulative of those who live within it. While Abel has the ability to exploit the city as a tool for his business’ expansion, this opportunity seems to carry with it increased violence and danger. When anonymous thieves hijack Abel’s transport trucks, Abel approaches the city’s district attorney to ask for protection. He is told that the crimes against his employees are small and unimportant in a city filled with violent crime. Subsequently, Abel is pressured by his wife, his lawyer, and his suppliers to arm his drivers with guns as a way to protect the individuals and the company against forces which are too corrupt for the legitimate justice system to handle. However, by giving his drivers guns, Abel becomes responsible for the deaths of others at the hands of his
At first glance, AMVY seems to be just another historical drama, and its New York setting seems to be just an allegory. Yet, it’s startling to watch this historical drama about the New York from 30 years in the past and see echoes of its corruption and decay in that same city today. As we watch this drama about the destruction of justice and order on film screens, the same sort of problems are echoed by the news: racial violence, gun law disputes, copyright infringement rulings, political corruption investigations, the failed war on drugs, the rise in bankruptcy. But the New York of AMVY is just one vision of New York. Other stories imagine the city differently. Joan Didion spoke of being enamoured of the city and her disillusionment with its cruelty. Martin Scorsese has shown off the city numerous times—from Travis Bickle’s night-time New York in Taxi Driver to Jordan Belfort’s skyscapered backdrop in The Wolf of Wall Street. Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s captures a sense of the city’s depression and its dreaminess. There are Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Wharton’s Age of Innocence. All of these iterations of New York suggest that, underneath the city’s exterior, there’s something fantastic and ambitious and crazy about it. Maybe we love to read about it because it’s something we can’t control, understand, or even predict. Maybe we keep coming back to stories about it because it’s never just another neutral place that exists in the backdrop of life. Instead, it insists that it’s part of what makes these stories so interesting.
At The Beach Article and Photos by Catriona Spaven-DonN
Her legs dangle over the back steps and soak up the evening’s waning sunlight. Distantly, a lone treetop is captured in gold, each branch highlighted and then abandoned. Shadows move forward like nightmares, as devious as thieves. The bench beside her creaks as the moss grows, reclaiming the rotten wood. She squints out at the water and waits for the sun to disappear behind the hills. The stillness is deceptive. Unbroken reflections are suddenly ripped apart by the uproarious jump of a rebel trout. The angle of the valley blurs and even the sky is an uncertain thing. Ripples destroy and then recreate the imperfect symmetry of this not-quite-quiet place. She goes inside to switch off the whistling kettle. The dog follows. She takes the chipped mug to the dining room and sits on one of
the mismatched sofas. The dog settles underneath the moth-eaten curtains and licks its paws absent-mindedly. The girl contemplates the room where her parents had exchanged confessions of their young love decades before. She can see them sitting here, not much older than she, and imagine their hands intertwined, still nervous, still unfamiliar. The dog yawns. The girl pats her thigh and they go upstairs in single file, the dog plodding behind. Each of their steps unsettles clouds of dust. The spiders retreat into corners. The bats scratch at the ceiling. Throughout the night, the sinister symphony—of branches at the windows, mice under the floors, rain on the roof—crescendos and then falls silent. The girl dreams in sounds: metal on metal, breaking glass, one
cry. She wakes to the heavy darkness and, slowly, the incessant motion of the city fades. Soon there is nothing but her breathing. Her breathing and the oppressive black of night. The next day, she gets things ready for the beach. The dog waits patiently by her side as she makes sandwiches. She remembers when her parents would set up a factory line of her and her siblings—buttering the bread, adding the lettuce and tomatoes, slicing the cheese. Outside, the fog hangs down, moving through the treetops like fingers of smoke. The dog whimpers, reluctant to move off the back step. The girl puts the rusted key under the shell on the window ledge. She pats the faded tartan blanket and the dog sighs exasperatedly and jumps up into the car. The girl places her hand on the wheel, breathes in,
breathes out. She drives slowly, uncertainly, now. Around here, cars have to pull into passing places and jagged rocks stick out from cliff faces into the single-track roads. The dog watches out the window like a co-pilot. At the beach, the tide is out and the black seaweed clings to the sand like another layer of sea. Crows fly low over the water and then disappear into the cloud. Over on the island, the cottage windows are brightly lit. It seems strange to imagine anyone else nearby. The dog doesnâ€™t run after the sticks like she normally would. The girl and the dog walk over the peninsula towards the castle, just another wall of grey blending into the dark sky. Every so often, the girl bends to pick up smooth stones. They are white, beige, sometimes pink. When she was young, she and her siblings would have competitions
back at the loch to see who was the best at skimming stones. Her parents would sit and watch to make sure their children didnâ€™t go too near the edge of the pier. The girl grabs onto the heather and pulls herself up the steep slope, getting her knees muddy. Ancient steps are buried under the long grass, barely footholds anymore. By the castle entrance, she stops and closes her eyes. The air is salty and wet. The water churns many metres below. The dog breathes heavily. The laughter of her parents and siblings surrounds her. She can see them running into their favourite hiding places behind crumbling rocks, or pretending to cook in the fireplace, or making up stories of the kings and queens who lived and died in these rooms, now no more than walls and weeds. She does not cry. Their absence has become almost normal. Instead, she hums a tune to herself as she sits on a rock by the entrance, tall and rounded like a sentinel who got left behind in history. She unwraps the sandwiches and holds one out to the dog, who swallows it gratefully. Back on the beach, they wander out to the shoreline. Coils and swirls give away
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where the sand worms are hiding. Anemones wriggle their ruby red fringes from one pool to the next. Mussels lie discarded, emptied of sticky delicacies. On the rocks, burnished orange lichen blossoms like small explosions. And there, a monument to time passed, stands the boathouse, weathered smooth and grey like the shells scattered at its base. The girl vaguely thinks about driving back to the city. Here, it seems like no world exists beyond the dark sea, the forests, and the fog that hides them. Her hands twitch nervously as she thinks about the motorways and the overpasses. Again she thinks of metal on metal, breaking glass, one cry. She reaches out to pat the dog and stroke her soft ears. The dog stares up at her with sad eyes. She looks towards the castle, almost invisible behind the layers of mist. Together, the girl and the dog walk back across the sand, now nothing more than blurred outlines against the darkening sky.