There are times when something as simple as the rain that freckles slate grey water can bring you back to it – that feeling you discovered in your boyhood when the ragged line of trees against the sky filled you with a loneliness that had nothing to do with loss.
This land, sometimes, carries an emptiness you feel in you like the breeze.
It’s not a sad thing. Rather it’s an exclamation for the country, a song you learned by rote in the tramp of young boy feet through the rough and tangle of bush that shaped you.
You come to geography the same way still, expectant, set, awake to the hard flush of space that fills you.
Against the push of horizon there’s a promise of territories beyond, undiscovered, and wild, of vistas unseen and unexpected and the thrill of spilling outward, downward into sudden canyons that are so empty and so full all at the same time.
All those years in cities never took that away — that feeling of tremendous awe.
When I came back to rejoin my native family after 20 years, the land was there. Standing on it, looking out across the great wide roll of the Canadian Shield, it bent time in upon itself, so that I was a boy again, wonderstruck at the enormity, the sheer wild thrust of it, the past implied in everything.
It was the land that framed my family’s reconnection. It was the balm for the awkwardness of strangers who bore the same blood and history and wounds.
Whether it was picking blueberries or canoeing out to picnic on a small island, the land gave us space and a sky to watch, waiting for the words to fall.
It wasn’t easy coming back. I had nothing of the Ojibway left on me and they had no experience with the urban world I knew. But all of us felt a kinship with the territory we called our home and it was there amongst the muskeg, rock and spruce of the northern land that we found a way to learn each other, to scrabble past the differences, the oddness we found in each other.
We went camping the second summer I was home. We drove to the shores of Silver Lake on the gravel road that leads to Grassy Narrows and found a place above a wide sweep of beach.
There were five of us. My uncle Archie, my mother, step-father, brother and I.
I watched them erect their canvas tent, cut saplings with an axe for the frame, bind it with long strips of bark and line the floor with cedar boughs.
When I put up the small orange hump of nylon that was my pack tent, they laughed.
We stood on the beach and my uncle told us stories about the lake and the land across the bay where we stood. He told us of portages and the way the people followed them according to the season, the moose and deer or fish drawing them at different times.
He told us of learning those routes as a boy and how he could find his way from there to Whitedog, 160 kilometres away, by portages alone.
My brother and I took off in the canoe to find them for ourselves. It was a calm, perfect afternoon and the paddling was easy. We talked some but mostly we concentrated on following our uncle’s talk, looking for the landmarks he described and finding that first portage.
We found it without a problem and we hauled that canoe up and over a half-mile portage onto a long narrow lake edged with wild rice.
At the far end we found the stone marker for the next portage. It was shorter but steeper and the lake we came onto was an almost perfect bowl with sheer cliff walls of pink granite where eagles nested. We paddled slowly around that lake, neither of us inclined to talk.
Instead, we drank in the feel of it. There was no flight path above us, no drone of airplanes. We were back eight kilometres or more and there were no outboard motors to be heard. There was only the land, the symphony of it, the orchestral manoeuvres of wind and rock and sky.
I could feel the presence of my people, the staunch heart of them beating here for millennia and I felt joined to it.
We paddled back as evening fell. Both of us were touched by the opportunity to feel history and we talked about how it must have felt in pre-settlement times to be making that same paddle back to a camp set up above the beach. We could smell wood smoke and we saw the fire burning in the middle of the camp.
It was the perfect idyllic scene, the Ojibway world unchanged, unaffected. But when we beached the canoe and walked to the camp we found them in lawn chairs watching a ball game on a battery-operated television.
I laugh about it now, that collision of time, but back then it confused me. I was so desperate to reconnect, so hard pressed for definition that the cultural non sequitur was jarring.
I wanted my people to be as tribal as I dreamed them, and later, when my uncle taught me to do loon calls on the beach, as traditional and cultural as I needed them to be. But time made that impossible.
We all of us have seen time disrupt us. Everyone has seen the lives we sprang from changed and altered and rearranged, evolved into a curious mélange of old and new, known and undiscovered.
The country between us is not strange. We all of us, Indian or not, carry a yearning for simpler, truer times.
We come to love this country in different ways but it defines us all with the same measured hand. When you stand on it, open yourself to it like a child, you learn that distances, like time, are a construct, navigable by desire.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.