Walking the territory

These are the days of summer’s end. Above the mountains clouds become a heavier grey ominous with snow that’s a mere month or so away.

These are the days of summer’s end. Above the mountains clouds become a heavier grey ominous with snow that’s a mere month or so away.

There’s a washed out feeling to the blue sky now and the jays and other winter birds have begun to peck about the yard. Even loon call in the thick purple night is urgent now. Autumn moons. Time to fly.

Morning air bears a nip and the dog trots back from her foray in the trees heaving fogs of breath. Mist shrouds the lake. It moves across the surface and there’s a blackness to the water that speaks of ice and the deep glacial dark of winter.

Geese flap down the cleft of lake angling south and beavers fatten up on saplings near the shore.

These are the days of melancholy, the subdued light of it all, the air of departure all chilled and bruised and final feeling. Even the leaves in their pastel spiral to the ground leave gaps.

So you walk the territory of your living saddened some by the dimming of the light but thrilled at the power of change everywhere around you.

Once in the autumn of 1986, I walked the northern territory where I was born. My uncle had told me where our camps used to be and I rented a boat and motor and headed down the Winnipeg River.

It was an important trip for me. I’d been reconnected with my native family for eight years then but I had no sense of my beginnings and something in me needed to see where it had started.

All I knew was that there was something in those territories that I needed. Exactly what that was I didn’t know, only that I needed to walk there.

The summer boaters had all disappeared. There was only me on the water. Powering down the length of the river that had framed my family’s experience I was awed by the incredible contrast of fullness and emptiness all at the same time.

The land had a haunting quality. There was within it the feeling of great mystery, of secrets lurking behind the tree and rock and bog of it.

The water was dark, a bottomless feel to it and I sensed the presence of great muskies and sturgeons and pike the length of an oar.

It was overcast with breaks in the cover where the sun poked through illuminating rapids and swells and eddies so that the spume of them glistened like frost or ice against the hard black of the river’s muscle.

When I found the cove across the bay from Minaki, I nosed the boat into it. Everything was hushed. There was only the ripple of the water and the wind in the trees. Everything else was silent.

I cut the engine and allowed the boat to drift in to the thin graveled stretch of beach. The land seemed to slip by and there was the sense of time bending in upon itself and the world closed off behind it.

No one had been there for some time. That was obvious by the overgrowth on the thin trail that wound up from the beach. It was barely discernible and I had to search to find the head of it. Everywhere there were windfall trees, exuberant bursts of bracken and bramble and moss and lichen covering everything. I had never felt such stillness.

I didn’t know where to look for the campsite. I settled for a steady prowling. The ground was uneven, rocky by turn and hard to navigate. But I managed to cover a lot of it.

The deeper I walked into the bush the more the feeling of time suspended fell over me. Only the sound of my footfalls on the rock and twigs permeated that thick unmoving air.

I felt the land around me. There were no edges to it, no limits, no borders, only a relentless unfurling of itself and me, standing there in the middle of that vastness, alone, vulnerable, humbled by magnitude.

I walked for hours. Now and then I’d stop somewhere, sit against a tree and look around. Or I’d merely stand there in the push of forest and feel its quiet power, its timelessness, its pervasive upward and outward thrust.

I never did find the old campsite but I found something a lot more valuable. As I stood there in that chill autumnal light, seeing the breath of me exhaled into the dim bush around me, I found the essence of my Ojibway self.

In the shadow and break of the land I could imagine my people living. I could sense the discipline they needed to live with to survive out here. I could sense the fortitude, the strength of will, the grit and determination the land asked of them.

And I could sense the deep spirituality it engendered, feel it like an ember from those tribal fires glowing at my core.

I boated to other places my uncle had suggested and in each place where my history began I gleaned more from the land. I never ever found a physical clue of my beginnings but I uncovered a fundamental psychic connection that has never left me.

I am and will always be Ojibway. Anishinabeg. It is the identity Creator graced me with.

What I become in this world is framed forever by that definition just as it is rooted in the land from which I sprang. As long as there is the land there will always be a home for me, a place my soul can wrap about itself, rest, rejuvenate and carry on.

When we speak of land claims and treaty rights, this is what we mean. This place of returning where history is a feeling, a spiritual thing that empowers, enables and sustains us. A point of contact with Creator. A prayer and a realization all at the same time.

When you walk the territory of your being, as an individual or a country, the truth is always spiritual.

Yes, these are the days of summer’s end. In the half light of autumn, always the promise of its returning.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.

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