on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404
on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404
Somewhere between Hvalfjördur and Thingvillir (the double ‘l’ pronounced with a d/t sound, thus Thing-vit-leer) we were drenched in mist, rain, and mud. And, since our day ended up being an almost 30 km scramble over what the Icelanders call ‘leg-breaker trail’ (Leggjabrjótur), by the time we were done we were sore and wet and cold in every possible way. And dirty. When my daughter looked at some of the clothes we’d been wearing, she coined the term: pilgrimage-gross.
Which got me thinking about appearances, pilgrimage, Icelanders and North Americans. Nowhere we stayed had the kind of full-length, or even half-length, mirrors so common in North America. There was a kind of self-acceptance and natural toughness to the Icelanders with whom we walked, an easy gracefulness that seems to come from closer contact with the natural environment. What’s more, I noticed that the folks we set out with became more handsome and beautiful as we shared the trials and the trail together. So even though our clothes (and especially our boots!) became progressively more ‘pilgrimage gross’, a kind of ‘pilgrim beauty’ shone even more through the mud, mist and cold, and was everywhere present in the people and the land.
There was also an earlier interview on CBC radio about Iceland, just before leaving:
Concordia (and theological studies) has been getting some good coverage out of the 2016 Icelandic pilgrimage!
I’m writing this from a tent behind the museum in McCord SK, listening to the howling of what sounds like a hundred coyotes. They’re making quite a joyous racket to the south and east of town. Our tents are pitched just behind the old railroad station which is the museum….I had a sponge bath in what must once have been the platform for departing passengers, since this is day three with no running water or electricity close for us. Wondered if someone on that platform could travel in time, what they would think of what they saw, and of this town.
McCord may not have a cafe or more than one main street, but it has palpable community spirit. They took us in and gave us a wonderful potluck supper, and then came out in numbers (50 people) for our presentation on the North West Mounted Police Patrol trail walk. Thelma Poirier, a poet from neighboring Glentworth, talked about how lovely it was to think of this as pilgrimage. Many others loved the slides Hugh showed from the 50s and 60s, people from this area, even one sitting in the audience.
After another day of walking (today only having to cross 4 barbed wire fences and not over 20 like yesterday), we actually got here early today. There was much less walking through waist high hay fields or over bog. Today much of our path was on a lovely dirt road and we had lunch in the lee of an old farmyard’s trees, while the grasshoppers blew around in biblical proportions.
People here, when I ask them on camera, are far too polite to say that they think we’re crazy to be walking. They even brought out the best: jellied salads, potato salad, sweet and sour meatballs, and Saskatoon pie for dessert! And sent us home with our lunch for tomorrow….
I love my aunt. She’s always been like a second mother to me. Especially these last years, when my own mother failed, my aunt, as so often, was forced to be the safe harbour in which our family finds shelter.
My aunt is surprising. She stays up late and at 88 years old, still likes to travel. If there are potatoes to dig, she just might go dig them. She’s tough – and still, in the ways that count, old fashioned.
But not old fashioned in many other ways. We did something together tonight that I never thought we would do. We made and tied medicine pouches, with elk leather and sweetgrass from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The pouches are destined to be used as gifts here in Saskatchewan.
A big part of pilgrimage is learning how to receive the kindness of others. We haven’t even really begun our local Camino – this North West Mounted Police Patrol Trail pilgrimage – and so far there have already been meals, a donated vehicle, and beds to keep us sheltered until we put up our tents.
But part of pilgrimage is also recognizing what gifts we strangers bring with us to these lands we cross, and bringing physical evidence of such gifts with us. That is why I have the sweetgrass and the red string from the Mohawk, for some of the First Nations and Metis people we will meet here. I read recently that even though the Mohawk almost never came this far west, there was a group of them that overwintered, in the 19th century, in the Cypress Hills, where so many other First Nations gathered in the final, collapsing days of the bison hunting economy.
I wonder what those Mohawk saw, and thought. My aunt and I cut the leather and together wrapped up the sweetgrass. It felt like something blessed to be doing this with her, my aunt with whom so often I’ve gone to church and sung hymns as well. Someone with whom I hold this land, this prairie, in common. I held the pouch up to her nose: that smells so good, I said. Doesn’t it. That smell of leather.
She smiled. Or maybe what smells so good, she answered, is the sweetgrass.
What is this about this big statue your government is building….what’s it called? Mother Canada? From the pictures I’ve seen, looks ghastly.
I try to tell people here that I couldn’t agree more. Mother and Canada are two good words in their own right. To my mind, however, they just don’t go together. What’s more, the Mother Canada statue will apparently be reaching out eastward, toward Europe. Straining toward Europe by the looks of it. I wonder what the First Nations would think about that. And why Mother Canada’s planners don’t seem to make any reference at all to the earth that has been our real mother since we who are European background arrived on these shores.
My son and I took a 5-mile walk along the Cam river today, Canada Day. It feels a bit odd to be here, in England. Of the string of houseboats moored along the river, one of them was flying a Canadian flag. I took a picture. And I wore my Haudenosaunee tee-shirt. For me, at least now, being Canadian, which I am, has to include also some recognition of those other nations.
The long boom of a lake freighter’s horn woke me up this morning, and within a minute, even from my bed I could feel its massive bulk sliding past just a few metres away on the Seaway. There is something in the air, a vibration that shakes you, when something that big is in motion, so close.
Apart from the freighter, however, it’s quiet here this morning in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. Sparrows and red-winged blackbirds flit back and forth in the grass along the seaway, calling out to each other. Garter snakes and frogs fight their battle for survival under the cover of leaf and deadfall. After 35 kilometres of walking in the heat and seeing new sights the last two days, my sunburned students are just waking up.
Our group of pilgrims exemplify urban Montreal, and especially Concordia: the students speak Arabic and Spanish, Ukrainian and Armenian in addition to English and French. Some have complicated family backgrounds spanning several continents. One carries a First Nations identity card. A few have shared family histories of oppression and displacement. As ‘hyphenated Canadians’, the questions they ask of the Mohawk are particularly insightful: how is it possible to share land and not lose identity? How will a Mohawk policy of not allowing mixed marriages to remain in Kahnawake work? Do you have your own passports? Why don’t you call yourselves Canadian?
This is a pilgrimage in so many ways. A journey of discovery of ourselves and of others, born on the feet, felt in the heart and mind.
May 23, 1873, the Dominion of Canada created the North West Mounted Police. Many were misfits. Quite a number of the first recruits were sent home, some went home when they saw the conditions. But they proved themselves, acting bravely, often honourably and occasionally even nobly, despite bureaucratic bungling and sometimes terrible direction from a far-away government.
The NWMP were poorly equipped, fitted out with red coats (Macdonald didn’t want the Americans to think they were a military unit, but rather a police force), and had to go through the States to get to their Canadian posts, because there was no railroad. Their first task was to trek to the North West Territories so recently acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to take advantage of the temporary power vacuum in the west created by the American Civil War’s effects, to seal the border against the United States (a number of the American “wolfers” were themselves Civil War vets and perhaps sufferers from what we would now call PTSD). They were to gain the trust of the First Nations, which they for the most part did, a trust that their political masters later occasionally asked them to betray, a turnaround that deeply disappointed and forever marked some of the first recruits.
Canada would not be the country it is without the red coats. But we could do a lot of learning from their first years, still. Or again.
Hockey. Need I say more?
But just in case: Finland’s huge telecom communications company, Nokia, is responsible for a large chunk of the country’s economic activity. Nokia had some trouble with its handset business and now, seems almost invisible. Our telecommunications giant – Nortel – actually did disappear.
Reason #3: winter.
Finland knows what it’s like to live close to overbearing, powerful neighbours. Think the United States makes life difficult? Try the Soviet Union, which Finland had to fight off in its terrible Winter War in 1939-40. Or the Russians, recently flexing their military muscles in the far north. Or even the Swedes, with whom the Finns have a love/hate relationship not so different from our own with the Americans. Recently, the Finns concluded a deal with the Swedes to share military hardware. ‘That’s smart. If anything were to happen,’ I said to a Finn at the time, ‘you would have the Swedes here to help you.’ ‘Are you kidding?’ this Finn replied, only half-jokingly. ‘For Sweden, we’re just a handy buffer zone.’
#5: forests. Birch trees. Lots of them.
Finns are polite to a fault. When I was recently in Finland, they would – almost without exception, apologize to me for how unfriendly a country Finland is. Then, in the next breath, they’d invite me for dinner. Like Canadians, Finns probably even apologize for being so polite.
#7: lakes and rivers (rivers are called ‘joki’ in Finnish). Lots of them, too.
Finland is a country with a future. The land in Finland is actually rising up out of the sea, an effect of the rebound since the last ice age, as the land ‘springs back’ from the weight of tons of ice no longer there. As the ice melts, there’s more land to Canada too. Unfortunately.
#9: our poutine, their karjalan piirakka. Just as unusual, just as tasty.
Finland is a safe, relatively happy country with a small population, largely ignored by the world. It has a winter that’s not as bad as its reputation (I was north of the arctic circle in February and it was warmer there than in Montreal). It struggles to do justice in relationship to its aboriginal population (the Saami). It has a linguistic minority in one part of the country and official bilingualism (Swedish-Finnish). Finland has blueberries and black bears, good universities and friendly people. Both countries have a history of social democratic movements that, occasionally, overlap: the most famous Finnish pancake house in Canada is the “Hoito” (Finnish for ‘care’), opened as a workers’ co-operative in Thunder Bay.
There you are: ten reasons why Finland and Canada are siblings separated at birth. I could go on. But of course, like any siblings, sometimes it’s the differences that are also interesting. Whatever else you can say about Finland, you’ve got to love a country that invented the sauna. Imagine visiting during a midsummer’s evening when it stays light into the early hours, and when there are bonfires waiting, with a sauna, perhaps some singing, a cold beer and a swim in the ocean or a shivery northern lake. That’s not just any sibling. That’s a sibling worth getting to know better.
For most of the morning, despite the signs saying otherwise, there really is no trail, just the steep side of the mountain. The grass is thick and slippery with overnight rain. The going is difficult: two of our group fall, one badly, somersaulting down the slope and rising painfully with an egg-sized bruise on her shin. We struggle along, unusually quiet. There are two more falls before lunch. No one says anything but I’m sure I’m not the only one worrying there will be an even more serious accident if the trail doesn’t soon improve. We’ve only gone two kilometers out of 25 planned for the day. Later, we find out that many pilgrims just skip this section of marked trail because their German or Norse guidebooks suggest going by the highway. We have no book.
“The best maps are conveyed orally and by gestures, occasionally with a pen and a scrap of paper…just where the road makes that imperceptible fork, that difficult turn” (Tomas Espedal, Tramp). But there was no informal guide to show us the secret, safe path. We are alone, six Canadians under a Norwegian sky. We manage in the only way, the old way, step by step.
When it’s safe to lift our heads, there’s a beautiful pass stretching before us. The trail, such as it is, perches us high above the highway, which is itself above a train track, all three thin parallel lines etched like afterthoughts into a narrow notch between steep granite. On breaks to catch our breath or adjust our boots, we scan the rock-face across from us, and especially the meadows between rockslides. If you want to see muskoxen look for boulders, said one of the Norwegians. Boulders that move.
It’s the end of June and there are still banks of snow on the upper flanks. Every hundred meters or so we meet another rushing mountain stream. Is there a bridge? Someone calls out from behind. There is? Thank God. Pilgrim prayers are increasingly simple. Thank God for goretex boots. Here there’s a larger stream, jumping and frothing and swollen with spring run-off. No bridge, but fortunately there are flat rocks and A moves a few into place to stand on. Two of our group take position, mid-current, to help support the others across, water coursing and spraying around our ankles. Crossing water has become routine. No one thinks much more about it until we round a switchback and come face to face with the fact that the gushing current we just traversed flies out the side of a cliff and drops fifty feet through empty space, only yards after our fording. Later that day a Norwegian pilgrim falls and manages to get out, but loses items from her backpack over the precipice.
There’s animal dung of every variety on the path. At first it’s a game to try to imagine the various creatures who have passed. But at one point just before a steep ascent it’s so thick we have to make a detour. The sheep and reindeer are smart, smiles G grimly, as she pushes up the incline; they know how to drop weight when a hill is coming. Yet climbing is easier than a descent. Your heart hammers and the moisture pools at the base of your back where most of the backpack weight sits. But there is none of the shock to your knees, the chance of slipping. And anyway, climbing is hopeful; it means going somewhere.
Eventually we emerge onto a huge flat table-plateau, where we’re rewarded by the high Norwegian landscape: moss-covered rocks and grey-green lichen stretching out in all directions to a treeless horizon. Without a mid-range, distances are deceiving. We see a cabin in the distance, perched on a giant, solitary rock. It takes forever to walk there. In front of the door is a grey mass that turns out to be a waist-high pile of reindeer antlers. We look around but there is no sign of human life, no one to explain the carnage. A flock of sheep approach and retreat, wheel around us in a spiral and disperse, alternating between curiosity and fear. For a few seconds we are two groups completely still, examining each other across the divide of species, before one of us makes a sound and they bolt away again.
After another hour or so under the huge vault of sky, someone calls for a stop. We find spots in the lee of boulders, sheltering from the increasingly cold wind. K pulls her hood up around her ears and falls back into the pillow of lichen. S, who was busy picking greenery in the lower altitudes now adds garnish from the wilderness to our bare sandwiches: leaves and flowers and herbs, edible evidence of where we’ve been. It’s late and there are still many kilometers to go before we sleep. But we pull our hats over our ears and pass the sandwiches and the tea. How long have we been walking? Four days now? Five? No one seems to remember. We lean back into the lichen, and enjoy a view we cannot name, looking out over this strange world like house-guests who are lost but can’t yet admit it.