I was awake in the night for several hours and came down to my desk to sit in the quiet and think. I heard an owl in the woods and the swift movement of something running along the deck above the covered porch out my study window. A weasel? Every time I hear animal feet, I think weasel now. But we also have flying squirrels who come out at night to glide and forage. I was relieved this morning to open the hot-tub (it’s such a nice way to wake up — a soak with a cup of strong coffee and old New Yorkers or Harpers) and see this tree frog under the edge of the cover. (The reason it’s in a jar is that I have to remove it when I replace the lid. And for some reason, the frog liked the jar and spent about half an hour meditating inside.)
Anyway, I was awake in the night and because you don’t always get to choose what you think about in those dark quiet hours, I found myself reading parts of Douglas Cole’s Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, a book I read quite carefully when I was writing the “Quercus virginiana: Degrees of Separation” chapter of my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I was trying then to figure out some things about the ethics of salvage archaeology, which is one way to look at the 19th century practice of artifact collection. I was remembering an encounter I had as a child with the Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mungo Martin as he worked on the Welcome posts at Thunderbird Park in Victoria. (I was a free-range child, sent out on summer mornings to ride my bike as far as the edges of the known world, which for me, in 1961-2, was Beacon Hill Park.) I spent a lot of time during the writing of that chapter looking at Charles Newcombe’s archival photographs of villages — Gwa’yasdams on Gilford Island, ‘Mi’mkwamlis with its feast dishes and poles…And those photographs took me to the places where terrible acts of theft and deception were common, as were more businesslike and fair transactions. (I’m remembering information at the Edenshaw retrospective at the VAG a few years ago where a daughter remembered the family’s relative affluence when museums commissioned pieces from both Charles and his wife Isabella, an extraordinary basketmaker; the work was commercially viable without sacrificing traditional formlines and artistic values.) The Newcombe photographs also documented the villages with such care and attention.
One can look at them, a single degree of separation, and approach something of the experience of gliding onto the beach at Kalokwis on Turnour Island among the canoes where the houseposts stare out to sea, their imagery and context intact. Or walk up to the group of people standing in front of Kwaksistala, a house on Harbledown Island, in 1900, children and adults wrapped in blankets, a few of them in headdresses. That house’s sculpin front informed, in memory, some of the Mungo Martin’s work in Thunderbird Park, as of course did Gwa’yasdams. We can almost remember, looking at these photographs, almost trace the trajectory of the artist’s work back to his original home at Fort Rupert on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, where clams were dried by the fire and elegant hooks of western yew might bring up a halibut. We can almost stand there in our otherness, our clothing slowly absorbing the smell of cedar smoke and salt.
— from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, page 56-7
And then, because I couldn’t find a way to resolve how I felt about the whole thing — the ethics, the dueling notions of preservation and theft, of who owns what, and what belonging means anyway — I spent another half an hour just looking at the photographs in Dan Savard’s wonderful Images From the Likeness House: potlatches, men dipnetting salmon off rocks on the edge of the Fraser River, vats of eulachons being rendered to oil — while the small sounds of the night pressed against my window screen until finally I was tired enough to sleep.