Seven Nights in a Strawbale Cabin: Part FiveAnna Maria Greene June 1, 2007
SUNDAY September 17: The Road to Erin
“[Being at Everdale] makes you think more about tradition, connecting with family again. When I travel, I’ll be going to the rural parts, not the cities – less trampled territory.” Jen, Everdale Intern 2006
On my day off, I had the idea to go for a brisk walk and spend a little time in a nearby town. At first, my goal was Hillsburg, which is about 30 minutes from the farm. Once there, however, I spied the Elora Cataract Trailway and decided I’d hike to Erin instead. Big mistake. What should have been no more than a four-hour walk both ways, with a nice rest in between, turned out to be a seven-hour nearly nonstop trek that was both painful and ephiphanous.
The Elora Cataract is a 47-km trail that runs through some of the most stunning rural scenery in Ontario. Originally part of the province’s railway system, it was acquired by the Credit Valley and Grand River Conservation Authorities in 1993 after modern road construction through rural towns made the line obsolete. It now links the two watersheds (the Credit and Grand rivers) ecologically, as well as several major parks, the famous Bruce Trail and various communities along the way. Conservation authorities and friends work together to protect and preserve its bounty of wildlife, water, vegetation, land forms and historic resources.
Along the trail, one might see white-tailed deers, beavers, black-capped chickadees, brown bats, porcupines, rock doves, great blue herons and numerous other wildlife and plant species – many of which (about 110) are on the rare to endangered list. Apart from some starlings, and I think a red-winged blackbird though I’m not sure, as it flitted by so quickly, I can’t say I had any significant sightings, rare or otherwise. Then again, I was in so much pain, after a point, a snapping turtle could have crossed my path and it would have gone unnoticed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
I believe there are always signs out there for us, hints of what’s to come. It may just be a feeling (intuition), or a subtle or powerful symbol somewhere on the outside, but they are unmistakeably there, whether we are ready to see them or not. That day, my sign came in the form of a neighborhood dog. In truth, he looked more like a wolf than a dog – grey and white, with intelligent soulful eyes. As I walked along the road to Hillsburg, he bounded out to greet me. Friendly dog, I thought. But then he began to follow me down the road. I tried to shoo him back, to no avail. After several efforts of walking him back to his laneway, where he’d promptly turn around and trot alongside me again like it was some kind of wonderful game I was playing to entertain him, I went right into his yard with him, almost up to the door and told him “stay.” He finally got the hint, though he managed to look as if I’d hurt him deeply in the process. After about four or five minutes, I dared to glance back. What I saw sent little tingles down my spine. Sitting perfectly still on the side of the road outside his home, there he was, like a sentinel, intently watching me walk away. It wasn’t a bad feeling; just the kind that happens when you know that something you see or hear has a deeper meaning than it appears on the surface. It’s true, the poor animal was probably just a bit lonely and wanted some company, but on a subconscious level, I think I already knew that this dog signified something greater. Certainly, in many if not all aboriginal cultures, animals are “spirit beings” that bring powerful and important messages with them when they appear in someone’s life. Sometimes they have something to teach, or they might be echoing a quality that the person either lacks or possesses, or perhaps they are there to assist with developing a particular power. Sometimes, though, they may just be there as a protector-type, to warn you of danger. Australian Aboriginals believe that ancestral spirits have charged animals with the responsibility to take care of the land and its inhabitants, and this is a common theme in Native traditions worldwide. Whoever this wolf-dog was, it became clear to me later that he had appeared for a reason. My task would be to divine what that reason was.
When I arrived in Hillsburg, I saw the entrance to the trail and, to make a long story short, misread the signage and went the wrong way. After about 6 or 7 kilometers, I sensed something was amiss. The trail was unusually quiet, with little human traffic but eventually a cyclist confirmed my suspicions. I was headed in the opposite direction, towards Fergus instead of Erin! At this point, I was still feeling fairly boisterous, so I simply turned straight around and began walking back, determined to get to Erin. Seven km later, I was – as is to be expected when one back-tracks – exactly where I’d started. I’d already walked 14 kms (plus the walk from the farm) and Erin was still 7 km away. Since I wasn’t wearing a watch, I didn’t have much sense of time, but I figured if I walked at a steady pace I’d reach Erin around 2:30 or so. Then, I could stop and rest, have some lunch and begin a leisurely trek back about 4:30 to arrive at the farm by 6:00 or thereabouts – before sunset. By the time I landed in Erin, my feet were aching badly. A couple of hours, I figured, and I’d be as good as new. Imagine, then, my surprise when I saw it was already 4:15! Shops were getting ready to close and the mood of approaching dusk was in the air. As I sat with my cup of tea and sandwich in a lovely little tea shop, in this enchanting town, the extent of my bodily soreness became obvious. With each sip of tea, I grew more and more anxious. I began calculating the time. I’d left at 11:00 am and it was now 4:00ish, which meant I’d already walked more than four hours (I’d had a small break in Hillsburg). This meant my walk home would have to be a good two hours. Therefore, if I stayed much beyond 5:00, I’d be walking along an unknown trail by myself in the dark with no means of communication and no protection – against what, I didn’t exactly know, but that was just the point. I thought of my friendly wolf-dog and got the shivers again, except this time they were the foreboding kind. So, without barely any rest, and no time to explore the charms of Erin, off I went on my torturous walk back.
I tried to make the most of it, noticing the tree and plant life along the way: the beautiful cedars, maples and pines, the particular types I couldn’t identify; spruce, I guessed, birch, ash, hemlock, lots of bunchberries (those with the little white flowers), ferns and mosses of various kinds – and so many other rich and colorful vegetation. It was painful to come face to face with my ignorance of both native (and non-native) plant-life. That day, I made a solemn promise to myself, to work toward building my knowledge in that area. So much valuable information and folklore about plants have been lost, although some of it has been preserved in the Native oral tradition and in the passing of that information on to white explorers and settlers, who later recorded it. Earlier in my walk, I’d come across a bronze plaque erected along the trail, which told the story of Jacques Cartier’s crew who had come down with scurvy in 1535, and how the Iroquois saved them by making tea from the bark and foliage of the Eastern White Cedar. Cartier later called it the “tree of life.” It is now known that this tree is rich in Vitamin C. It’s branches are still used by Native Canadians today in sweat lodges and the twigs and leaves are used for numerous medicinal purposes. The story of Cartier and his crew is one of many that involves First Nations peoples passing on sacred knowledge about plant- and wild-life to white settlers and explorers, to their benefit. Unfortunately, these acts of generosity were ultimately repaid with acts of treachery – but that is a whole other sack of beaver pelts.
I’ve walked the lands till ravines swallowed my feet … [excerpt from “Landscape,” by Plains Cree poet Louise Halfe, in Bear Bones and Feathers]
The sun was slowly beginning to set as I limped along the trail that now seemed an endless stretch of dirt, sand and pebbles. My feet had blisters (as I had not been accustomed to long walks; it had been years since I’d hiked, my main city exercise being cycling) and I was really quite tired. The past week of working 10 hour days, along with my mysterious injury, had caught up with me. More than that, I’d not seen a soul on the trail for some 45 minutes, so I’d become hyper-vigilant for signs of potential danger – stray or wild dogs, a psycho-cyclist or -hiker hiding in the bushes – my imagination had once again taken full flight. To distract myself, I began reciting some of my own poetry in my head; eventually, figuring no one was around anyway, I recited it out loud, quietly. It had a calming effect on me so I went through all the poetry I had long ago committed to memory – the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Milton’s Lycidas (at least the first 100 lines or so); the entire T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, a few bits from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, several of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s and Shakespeare’s sonnets; some scattered verses from the romantic poets. I tried to recall lines from Blake’s Little Girl Lost in Songs of Innocence but all I could remember were the words “lost in desert wild is your little child … she had wandered long hearing the wild bird’s song…”. After a pathetic attempt to summon up passages from the works of contemporary poets, I got tired of hearing my own voice and ended with a poem that never fails to make me at least break a smile: Dorothy Parker’s suicide poem, You Might As Well Live, which goes something like this: Razors pain you, rivers are damp, acids stain you, drugs cause cramp, guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful, you might as well live. A bit morbid, but it did the trick. Few people know that Dorothy Parker was a devout social rights activist. Having no heirs, she left her literary estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she had never met. Sadly, after her death, her ashes sat in the filing cabinet of her lawyers’ office for some 15 years before a memorial was built for her in Baltimore. She wanted her epitaph to simply read “Excuse my dust” but instead it sings her praises, alluding only briefly to her witty self-deprecating last wish.
All this poetic reverie, which lasted perhaps an hour, had served me well to wile away the time and keep me from getting hysterical – proving that poetry, like music, can have medicinal benefits at least as powerful as pharmaceutical sedatives, but far more entertaining and healthy. I was almost in Hillsburg by now. But by this time, I was stopping momentarily every five minutes, because my legs were cramped up so badly and my blisters were rubbed raw. During one of my mini-mini-breaks, I thought of my friend the wolf-dog sitting on the roadside, so perfectly still he seemed almost unreal, and it came to me, suddenly, why he had appeared.
Wolves are highly social creatures. Over the past months, I had practically turned myself into a hermit, spending increasingly more time alone, shunning friends and family alike – and my present misadventure seemed to be highlighting this fact. Greycoat (as I’d come to call him) was there to remind me that it wasn’t always wise to be solitary, that I needed to connect with people again; more than that, I believe he was telling me that this rather late path I was taking towards helping, in my own small way, to heal the land should not be a solitary endeavor. Achieving great things requires the gathering together and joining forces of like-minded people, and I had not really been doing that – not even at Everdale. I was there among them, as an observer and appreciator, but I was not really “with” them. There was a disconnect that needed mending, between heart and mind, body and soul. And in order to do that, I needed to fully embrace the change that I instinctively knew was awaiting me, which was symbolized by the Harvest season – the time when things die and prepare to be reborn again. And with that epiphany came a renewed energy. My pace quickened and even though my legs and feet still hurt, I had gained enough of a second wind to get me home – to the farm, that is. Once there, I wasted no time showering and getting into my PJs. Nothing had felt so good in a long long time as being safely under the covers of that cozy bed in the little strawbale cabin that would be mine for only one more night, the moon shining brightly through my window and the silhouette of the trees revealed beneath its glow.