Monday, March 23, 2009

The Frigid Climes

Driving up to the Okanagan to visit my Moms and my Dads. As I wind my way along the Crowsnest highway that passess through Manning Park on the way to Princeton, I am struck by how dead and frigid the place feels. The mountains are dunn grey rock, interspersed with sprinkles of snow amid a patchy carpet of mostly dead pines, the quiet victims of the beetle, the occasional live trees stand in dull green contrast to their company. I used to think this area so alive, a hallowed alpine terrarium bristling with life. The windblown barrens around me are a chilling contrast to my errant recollection.

Is my impression wrong, or misread? Am I still culture shocked, erroniously comparing a hibernating northern forest that is months short of exploding with vitality to the eternally frantic and vibrant life of the equatorial land that I left weeks ago? Is my fresh memory of Uganda distorting my impression of these mountains and forests I love so much?

If you've never been to a tropical climate it's very hard to describe how much more alive they are than the temperate zones. There is no winter to halt the pace of the cycle of life, nothing to pause the onrushing cacaohony of growth. No patch of the rich, red soil exposed to the raw equatorial sun sits fallow for long before some opportunistic seed springs from it. And the skies are teeming with throngs of seemingly prehistoric avians chasing each other and diving to the rich ground below for food. By comparison, Manning Park felt like a deadzone.

Early this week Madlove dropped by and commandeered my computer to show me google earth close-ups of the interior of BC. Far from the densely forested mountainscape I expected, he displayed a twisted patchwork of barren clear cuts interspersed with new growth and some lucky stands of older timber that had so far avoided the axe and the beetle. It was as though a drunk had tried to shave his beard during an earthquake and only managed intermittent success. To be sure, BC is no longer a land of tall, vast, strong forests continuously blanketing the majestic mountains off into the distance (if indeed it ever was in my lifetime), the beetle, the fires, and the provincial Liberals have banished that place to my childhood memories. Perhaps the life is being scraped away from the surface of here, revealing this arid waste.

Down from the Similkameen Valley into the Okanagan I am impacted by the somber grey austerity of the hills and jutting rocks in their winter repose. The scattered trees on the heights and the well manicured skeletons of the vinyards on the slim shelves above the lakes do nothing to relieve the impession of lifelessness. My brain knows that in just a few weeks this place will brim with green, the trees will bulge with fruit, and the empty skies will be streaked with birds, their sounds carrying on warm sunshine breezes, but right now it feels like a wind raked moonscape.

Dad and I play crib by the wood stove then venture out to inspect some construction on his property. On the deck of the unfinshed stacked log structure, Dad and I quietly survey the valley around us. Though a wind blows howls across the rocks and through the tops of the remaining trees, it is still almost warm enough to forgo a jacket for a sweater. Spring, the great banisher and savior of the colder climates, unknown in the tropics, will soon emerge into this land and will chance to prove or fail at it's rejuvination and temporary resurrection, at least until the cold grips it again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Safeway Will Make You Cry

My friend warned me; "I've heard Safeway will, literally, make you cry". Of course I've heard that too. That is to say, having returned recently from Africa, 36 hours ago as of writing this, I am supposed to walk into a modern supermarket and weep at the incredible bounty of food available, contrasting starkly to the scarcity of food back there. To be honest, the first day back wasn't as bad as I'd worried. I had some 'why the hell did I leave Africa' anxiety in the morning when I woke up, and I didn't appreciate the snow, but fortunately by early afternoon the sun was out and the streets were rather navigable. I put on my cool shoes and my big winter coat, both of which I'd missed, and ventured out to do some banking and eat some shanghai noodle soup. First myth busted; I wasn't any more cold than anyone else on the street. I might previously have been roasting in the equatorial heat for two months, but I am still Canadian.

As I walk the streets I can't help but marvel at how ugly a group of people we are compared to Africans. I'm sure that's surprising, but it was so plainly obvious. Africans are beautiful, sleek, strong, stylish people. What makes them so particularly beautiful, and us so ugly, can be summed up in one word; Darwin. Africa is a giant, seething, natural selection machine. It's hard to describe just how hard the environment of Africa is. Everyone on the street is there because they managed to survive, and consequently, they have a stack of dead siblings, family members, and friends who are not there with them. Death is ever present and it works a special magic upon the people. Because they have yet to be cut down, they are very happy to be alive. Every handshake, every plate of beans and rice, every bottle of beer is an affirmation that you lived another day.

It also efficiently culls out the weak, the slow, and the sick, leaving the people stronger. Any individuals mechanism of survival is displayed openly to an observer; attractiveness, strength, health, cunning. African people's survival traits are strong enough to be obvious, and it makes them respectable, if not beautiful.

As I walk through Vancouver I can't say the same of us. To my eye, despite the physical beauty and middle class stylishness of some, we are essentially are an ugly, pasty people who are in dire need of a cull. I think many of us are alive because our stomachs are filled with plentiful food, our streets are safe from violence, and our hospitals are modern and free, certainly not because we've been tested and earned the right to live. Without death to remind us to be thankful for life, many have become vain and petty people, the kind that feel their happiness is a right that others are obligated to recognize; "Out of my way, I'm special", "I'm hot and you should treat me like I am", "That's right, it's me". It as though years of repeated advertising messages telling us that we are such distinct individuals have sunk in and we are convinced that we are despite objective evidence to the contrary.

I'm worried that Africa is already beginning to fade. Only the photos keep me there.

So I went into the Safeway on Davie Street yesterday, less than 24 hours off the plane, to test the theory. It looked and smelled like Safeway. All I thought was 'Your halibut steaks are dry, not very fresh looking, and way overpriced".