The Myth of an Empty Land

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sketch by R.B. Nevitt, surgeon with the NWMP in the 1870s

Despite recent attempts to sensitize Settler-Canadians to the brutal non-mythologised realities of our arrival and eventual colonial dominance in Canada, many stories of settlement still contain some version of the words “into a wild and uninhabited land came our brave ancestors.” Narratives based on an understanding of pre-Settlement Canada as “empty” or “wild” consciously or unconsciously serve an unjust political agenda. They ignore the ways in which First Nations were relied upon and then cast aside by the early Settlers. They conveniently excuse the economic and political machinations that were used to isolate and disempower Indigenous peoples in Canada, to metaphorically and literally starve them, and to seek their eventual destruction by death or assimilation.

In part because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadian myths of origin are changing. But it is not yet clear how they will evolve, and it is much less clear that their evolution will lead to a greater willingness on the part of non-Indigenous Canadians to see land in new ways – ways that might foster the Treaty relationships. In  November 2018 the government of Saskatchewan, responding in part to pressure from its Association of Rural Municipalities, significantly tightened rural trespassing laws.[1] This is a significant setback to public access, a backlash many think will only further damage relations with Indigenous peoples.[2] This summer I plan to walk – and camp – in Scotland and Finland, using the jokamiehenoikeus, or “right of responsible access.” These are countries in which a robust “right of responsible access” exists, and also countries from which Eastern and Western Canada derived some of their Settler populations. By studying how national myths are related to positive experiences of public use of land in Scotland and Finland, I am hoping to find resources in our own cultural histories that will help Settler-Canadians rethink their relationship to land, and thus to First Peoples.[3]

[1] https://sarm.ca/about-sarm/news/item/?n=194

[2] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/saskatchewan-trespassing-plan-racial-tensions-1.4891278

[3] Anderson, 2018. “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth,” in Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation, and Healing, edited by Ian S. McIntosh, E Moore Quinn, and Vivian Keely, 148-163. Wallingford, UK: CABI Press.

Geography & Wonder

Pints at the Star Inn

There is the geography we know and can trace topographically, made up of distance and terrain and movement. For instance, knowing it is about 14 miles (22 km) to the next town, there is a mountain in the way, and  a pub and a pint await us there. But there’s another geography as well, one that exists off the maps even though it overlaps them, a geography of uncertainty, of bodily ache, of imagination and story and solitude, and sometimes, if we’re fortunate, of wonder.

Since the Romantic era at least, wonder is the most gratifying of reactions to a view, natural or human. The walker cannot plan on wonder. But there are ways in which we open ourselves up to it and make ourselves available. In my experience those ways start with being silent, and with not over-planning a walk. That’s the way I felt when I woke up in Hayfield, in England’s Peaks District, the morning of the Kinder Trespass hike. Ready, but not completely prepared.

New Mills Central Train Station

Why Walk?

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‘Pilgrimage’ is such a tired metaphor it’s hard to remember sometimes that it’s based on actually doing something.  “Let’s go on a pilgrimage to my favourite restaurant”. “Life is a pilgrimage from birth to death.” Yes, sure. But…But what keeps me interested in not just studying journeys, but also walking them, is the way the brain unhooks at 5 km/hr. Without even trying to, you begin to notice geography, and your own body, and the relationship between the two (as you walk up a long prairie hill, for instance, or start to sweat in the sun). You pay attention in a different way to nature. Or better, nature presents itself to you, when you are available: coyotes sleeping in a burrow, badgers running ahead along the fallow-line, the meadowlark calling from a grey fence-post, a family of otters playing as they cross your path from the river, some old abandoned buildings, the soil at your feet. This is almost impossible at highway speeds. When you walk, you begin to think emotional and philosophical and spiritual thoughts – not because you plan to, but just because of the leisure and the rhythm, maybe even the slight boredom. For those fortunate enough to be able-bodied, the fact is that walking is one of those conscious activities closest to being unconscious, freeing the mind up for contemplation and surprise intuitions. Walking journey connects landscape, body, story and movement in a unique way. For those of us who try to allow space for the spiritual, walking pilgrimage is a gift. It’s meditation for anyone, like me, too undisciplined or lazy to meditate in other ways. Rebecca Solnit puts it this way: Pilgrimage is premised on the idea that the sacred is not entirely immaterial but that there is a geography of spiritual power….  it reconciles the spiritual and the material, for to go on pilgrimage is to make the body and its actions express the desires and beliefs of the soul (“Wanderlust” Penguin Books, 2000. Page 50).

A Five-Minute Cooks’ Tour

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on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404

The Way is Made by Walking

field of stones

Bare details don’t tell it all: Bær to Lundur, 17 km, Oddsstadir to Fitjar, 12.2. There is a map, but no obvious trail. Elínborg, Hulda and Floki, with few others, dream of a trail walked by Icelanders and others, to mark faith, and history, and friendship. They have planted posts over the years to help guide the way. But unlike the Camino, unlike even St Olaf’s, here there is rarely a visible path. A Spanish poet wrote that “the way is made by walking”. And isn’t that the way it is with life? The way is made by walking. And so is the trust, and the faith, and the community, and the hope. And the pilgrim.

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fording the stream

map of route

Pilgrimage Gross

moss on rocks detail

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.

Jonina meditates

Ertla and Elinborg in mist

 

 

Things You Wish You Hadn’t Said on Radio from Iceland

Iceland troll head by falls
My short TV appearance on Icelandic TV, filmed at the end of our walk (at the end of the report in Icelandic)
I was feeling somewhat exhausted when CBC Radio One’s All in a Weekend called me on the trail for a follow-up interview while we were high up on ‘bone-breaker’ trail after having been briefly lost in the clouds (by the way, Gabriel had to shout out to me how to say “bye” in Icelandic, but they cut that part). The “troll” comment was a reference to the big, happy rock-and-roll guy! #thingsyouwishyoucouldtakeback

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/programs/allinaweekend/a-walk-across-iceland-1.3692927

There was also an earlier interview on CBC radio about Iceland, just before leaving:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/programs/allinaweekend/pilgrimage-to-iceland-1.3692347

Concordia (and theological studies) has been getting some good coverage out of the 2016 Icelandic pilgrimage!