a living element that contains us
Last week I read Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage. It’s a marvellous book, an account of the author’s trip aboard the MV Clipper Adventurer, one of those ships taking scientists, historians, archaeologists, geologists, and lucky passengers on cruises to interesting places. There’s lots to admire in this book: the writing (lyrical and quirky), the detailed descriptions of time and place, the observant eye of the author. Best of all is the author herself who is warm and funny and perceptive. There were several points in the book where I put it aside and thought, this is something I know, this is something I believe, and I was so grateful to have another writer put it so eloquently.
I’d come to the Arctic at a moment’s notice with nothing but the required items on the baggage list and my inherited way of seeing. But the ice, the bear, the muskoxen, and the whole elemental place had changed this perception. They spoke without audible sound but with a powerful urgency that made me question the nature of what I had known as thought.
Was the land suggesting that here, in the Arctic, we do not own or contain individual thought, but rather move in a living element that contains us? Was it possible this living element was, itself, conscious? Were the sky over the tundra, and the lakes where muskoxen drank, a mind-substance into which I’d moved, as an imagined form might enter someone’s thoughts? Were my body and the terrain — the green and yellow tundra, the purple and white mountains, the lichen and stones — parts of one and the same body?
So often we speak or write of nature as something other than us, or wilderness as some ideal place. Yet we are those things ourselves. They are what we are. Our bodies, which we’re taught early to fetishize to some extent, to mistrust, to regard as evolved beyond the bodies of those we consume and degrade (listening to the news about the avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley has me thinking, well, what do you expect when you clip beaks, put birds into tiny spaces, deprive them of the ecology they are natural particiants within: it’s so clear that their health is our health), are part of an organism of exquiste form and energy. Which is also us. I believe it was Aua, an Inuit shaman who guided the explorer Knud Rasmussen, who said, ‘The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.’