Here in the mountains the spring birds have arrived early.
During our ritual morning walks along the lakeshore the dog and I have heard the unmistakable trill of the red-winged blackbirds. We’ve heard robins. Despite the thick layer of ice and the snow only now beginning to melt, the birds of spring are here.
In the news recently, I read of grizzly bears emerging early from hibernation. There are communities on the coast where bears are never seen until late May. But when I read of this it was the last week of February.
Then, just yesterday, we finally caught a glimpse of our friends. The blackbirds were perched high in the sheltering branches of a pine tree. The robins flitted about on a stretch of bare ground beneath a copse of trees. It almost seemed they were making the best of a rash decision.
Around our home the winter still holds sway. There are mounds of snow along the driveway. Icicles dangle from the eaves. The firewood dwindles dangerously low, even though the nights and early mornings demand a blazing wood stove. Even the road that leads out of the mountains to the river valley can’t be depended upon to be drivable.
But the birds are back.
I’ve written a lot about the unavoidable evidence of the world changing. I’ve written about the bees disappearing, the caribou vanishing and the rampant infestation of tree-killing bugs that have depleted the forests. It seems as though the world is clamouring for our attention but we offer only most cursory attention before other, more compelling, issues take us away.
I remember winter camping with my friend, Lars Ekman. He was an old hand at snowbound living. Ekman had been a lumberjack all his life and when he’d gotten too old for the felling, he’d gone back to school and got a degree in silviculture. That’s the branch of forestry that deals with the growing and cultivation of trees.
It had seemed an odd choice for a man for whom the sound of trees crashing to the forest floor meant money and security. But he was avid about it and at 59, when we went out that March, he’d been heading out in all seasons to study trees so he could know how each of the seasons affected them. He was nothing if not thorough.
We had no tents. Instead, Ekman showed me how to make a shelter out of what the land made available. So we fashioned tents out of sheets of canvas draped over fallen trees leaned on angles against other living trees. “It’s how the word lean-to was created,” he told me.
We built a fire and our kindling was deadfall and the wood we burned was only the dry stuff we could break off with our hands. He showed me how to make a heat deflector out of a pile of logs on the opposite side of the fire from where we slept. It worked admirably and we sat in a fine, radiant heat. As morning neared and the cold deepened, he would rise and take a log from the pile and put it in the fire. “If you can use things twice, they’re never wasted.” That was his philosophy.
Ekman loved the land. You could see it on him. A simple thing like winter and minus 30 degrees with a wind chill wasn’t enough to put him off being out there. For him, winter camping was a grounding thing. He believed that we need to stay in touch with the elements rather than avoid them.
“You have to walk with your face to the wind instead of ducking your head down. That’s how you come to know it. Same with rain. Same with snow.” I’ll never forget him telling me that.
He told me that there would come a time when the trees would rebel. There would come a time when they would slowly cease to operate as the lungs of the Earth because we would make it harder for them to breathe. When that happened, he said, we would start to see birds and other creatures appearing when they should not. Shortness of breath. Makes it hard to sleep.
We were out four days and I never felt cold. I was never hungry. I was never lonesome for the comforts of things I’d grown used to in my city life. Instead, I slept under a fallen tree while the snow fell, and was grateful.
Ekman is gone now. He’s been gone almost 30 years. But he would look at spring birds against a winter backdrop and shake his head. He’d raise his face to the winter wind and smile. Because the other thing he knew was that we could change it – if we only learned to see it, first.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org