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by Mary van der Boon
The sky and the lake are the same colour, gunmetal grey. Id forgotten how forbidding a landscape this can be, tree-covered shores extending endlessly into the distance, sheer cliffs dropping straight down into the lake below, often hundreds of meters deep. The Cambrian Shield. You can feel prehistory here, imagine glaciers carving their way across the north, leaving their permanent testament of huge rocks and bottomless lakes.
You try to describe the north country to people whove never been here and you can never get it exactly right. It either comes across as a sort of parody, a Lake Wobegon caricature, or else a modern-day Paradise Lost. Neither and both are true. The north is Elmer the garbage man, whose additional chore it was to rid the town of hungry bears attracted by the smell of refuse (he was provided with a ramp and a broom by the town council as a means of herding the unruly bears into his garbage truck). Every Tuesday Elmer would take three or four bears along with the trash to the dump a few miles out of town, but by the following Tuesday theyd all be back rooting through garbage cans and Elmer would have to begin again. Elmer finally resigned his commission as Town Refuse Officer, stating emphatically (in a letter to the local weekly), it never said nothing bout no bears in my contract. And the town councils subsequent emergency decision forcing the towns citizens to purchase bear-proof containers for their trash. As far as I know bears still roam the streets of this town every summer.
But the north is also Tom Thomson, his uncannily accurate ability to capture the look and feel of northern landscapes. Stark birch trees etched against a wintry sky, the riot of fall colours, a single twisted pine silhouetted against a forbidding backdrop, Tom Thomson painted what he found and preserved it for us all. Few painters have the ability to move me to tears, and Thomson does it effortlessly, every time. The light, the trees, the rocks and the lakes, Tom Thomson got the north. And in the end, of course, it got him.
I am on a voyage of rediscovery. After 30 years of refusal I have to face the fact that it is this north country that shaped me, moulded me, made me into who I am today. My years of seeking excitement and adventure in bright, crowded cities masks a yearning for solitude. Years spent in Vancouver, Bangkok, Jakarta, London and Amsterdam, magic years, and yet its only in the north country that I feel truly at home. I thought, taking that southbound bus just short of my sixteenth birthday so many years ago, that I would shake off that shameful, rural, northern rube-ness as a snake sheds its skin, and emerge a sophisticated, urban intellectual. For the most part, Ive succeeded, and yet some key element, some crucial piece of the puzzle has always remained tantalisingly out of reach. The truth, as realised by so many Canadians before me, is that the north is not just part of you, it IS you. You take it with you, but it also calls you home.
A true story: near my present home in the Netherlands is an area of rolling moors, broad heather fields that always remind me of Wuthering Heights. I choose to walk our Labrador dog there in the worst possible weather, always hoping I wont encounter another living soul, and sometimes that even happens for a half hour stretch in one of the most densely populated countries on earth I am entirely by myself. My Dutch brother-in-law asked me in all seriousness if I wasnt afraid out there all alone. He didnt mean as a woman, he meant TO BE ENTIRELY ALONE. Thats when I realised that I was still the north, no matter how many years and how many miles I had managed to put between myself and my roots. Because that need to be completely alone is something so quintessentially northern that it is literally impossible to explain to someone who hasnt experienced it firsthand.
This years voyage of rediscovery has taken me to Toronto, Kingston, Quebec City, Ottawa and finally here to Lake Temagami. Toronto moved me with the tableau of Toronto-the-Good-meets-the-Pope. Such very decent people, Torontonians and what a truly rare experience to find so many in one place. Kingston as the-little-town-that-could, relentlessly determined to offer itself up as a major tourist destination, and succeeding to a surprisingly large degree. Quebec City was a revelation, who knew such magnificence existed in Canada? Or such food? And Ottawa, the sound-and-light show at the Parliament Buildings making me weep with pride and the Tom Thomson exhibition at the National Gallery forcing me to realise I was, finally, on my way home.
Im still a little south of my native New Liskeard, but Ill get there this trip. For now the incomparable beauty of Lake Temagami tells me I am, indeed, home, from the easy friendliness of the reassuringly few people around me to the haunting cry of the loon echoing over the lake.
You know its true what they say -- you can take the girl out of the north ..
Ms. Van der Boon-Farmer is a Canadian journalist living in Hilversum, the Netherlands.