Currently I am teaching a once-weekly class at a community college in Merritt, BC, which is a 140 kilometer drive from my home. That sounds like a straightforward commute, but there are three minor problems. One. The class starts at 9am in the morning. Two. The term is January to April. Three. To get to Merritt, I drive over a mountain highway known as the Coquihalla Connector, which tops out at 1730 meters and is famous for black ice, impenetrable fog, and occasional whiteouts. The first 30 and the last 30 kilometers are low elevation and usually not a problem, but the middle 80 kilometers can be white-knuckle. Like when a semi passes and your windshield receives a blinding torrent of gravel-impregnated slush. The highway readerboard will have information statements like: “Dense fog next 30km,” or “Ice and Slippery Sections.” I like to pass the time by making up alternate statements like: “Do You Really Need to Make this Trip” or “Conditions Improve In 3 Months.” There are of course, occasional potholes, which must make snowplowing similar to an old man shaving: how to work through the wrinkles and low spots.
The stress of winter mountain driving makes a three hour trip feel like eight hours, so I have found other ways to help pass the time. On my westward trip, I keep track of the notable points: Silver Creek, Brenda Mines, the Pennask Summit with its five spectacular wind turbines, then Loon Lake, Elkhart, Pothole Creek, the Wart, the Aspen Grove turnoff, and Corbett Lake. Then on my way back I test my memory by ticking these points off in reverse. As a cautious driver, I take my time driving over the Connector the day before the class, and stay overnight in a motel.
Merritt, a crossroads town of some 7000 souls, has a checkered Settler history of cattle ranching, coal mining, railways, sawmills, and country music. Several First Nation communities are close by, and the town hosts a significant South Asian population. The town straddles the confluence of the Nicola and Coldwater Rivers, and it experienced an unprecedented flood in 2021.
My overnight stay is not in Merritt proper, but in the very north end of town, which has become a major transportation hub, as it is the junction of Highways 5, 97 and 97c (otherwise known as The Connector). Travellers and truckers from Kamloops, Vancouver, Kelowna and further afield all converge here, for gasoline, sustenance and overnight stays. My motel sits on a hillside just above this hub, and it looks down on a maze of on- and off-ramps, stoplights, side roads, drive-thrus, parking lots and 24-hour traffic. Looking out my window in the evenings, I see the majestic, elevated neon signs of A&W, Boston Pizza, Dollarama, Canadian Tire, Chevron, Comfort Inn, Esso, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Metro Liquor, No Frills, Petro Canada, Shell, Starbucks and Walmart. If I think I have missed one, I simply look up from my laptop and gaze down upon what now passes for community, since Merritt’s actual downtown has become a struggling commercial backwater.
What we gain from all these franchises is speed and convenience, but I wager that we lose far more: community, interaction, humor, uniqueness, idiosyncracy, sense of place. The attraction of this motel is that it is a five-minute walk to the college where I teach. Unfortunately the vintage Coldwater Hotel downtown, with its famous copper dome, no longer rents rooms. So my plan is to find another downtown motel close by, and go to the Coldwater’s Pub for a steak and a beer. I’m sure the Pub’s strippers are long gone, but I wonder if the dance pole is still there.
I am a stoplight. I parse out a significant portion of human life in ninety second intervals. Occasionally I allow left turns. I rule; I am now the central master of your society. Early on your traffic engineers created my timers, my circuits and my lights, but those elements now belong to me. Or rather, Us. We are Legion: we run cities, towns, suburbs. We were created to bring your lawless, impulsive nature under control. Remarkably, it worked. No other human-imposed limitations have worked so well.
As I survey my intersectional domain, I see my vassals. On my northwest corner there is a drive-thru burger joint, and a twelve-bay carwash. To the northeast is a big box store and a bigger parking lot. Southwest? Not surprisingly there is a car dealership, with the latest half-ton prominently displayed on a raised platform. And my southeast corner hosts a rental self-storage business, which is a priority for advanced accumulation of consumer goods. These businesses are all working hard to support our new regime. Asphalt rules. Mere control is one thing, but it must be directed toward the higher purpose, of commuter consumerism.
Right now I control four north-south lanes, two east-west lanes, plus eight left- and right-turn lanes. What a feeling of power, when a hundred drivers convene from all sides, anxiously awaiting my instructions! A few times each day I do see a vile city bus approaching. Even though it is only carrying three or four pathetic passengers, this vehicle is a direct threat to my existence. Now that I have total control of my timing, so I always make sure the insurrectionist bus gets additional stoppage time. I know it is a miniscule gesture, but we all must contribute to the war against mass transit. Same with pedestrians. One of my lenses showed a person walking. I have modified it so that same person now lies crumpled on the ground.
From my elevated vantage point, I look directly into the eyes, and minds, of drivers at my sovereign intersection. I sense their resignation, their boredom. Their thoughts are just where they belong, way down in the reptilian/consumer part of their brains. When I give them the green, they will obediently rush to buy a burger, drive through the car wash, pick up one hundred rolls of bargain toilet paper, put a down payment on an F-350, and then put their toilet paper in storage. These folks are so righteous. My colleagues and I are in the midst of designing a stoplight megaphone system, to further encourage them. Once my light turns green, it will be accompanied by a 100 decibel chant, Drive Buy, Drive Buy, Drive Buy!
October, 1962. Russia threatens to send missiles to Cuba, to fend off a pending US overthrow of Fidel Castro’s government. The situation worsens; global nuclear war is imminent. As an American teenager, this Cuban Missile Crisis gives free rein to my adolescent angst. Should I continue my literary fascination with Russian authors–Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky–or should I turn against them? Should I suppress my budding socialist and anti-war sentiments and align myself with the anti-communist hardliners? As the lurid tv images of mushroom clouds loomed, I thought: nothing I do, or don’t do, matters now. I can live for the moment, since any one of them could be my last.
Fortunately for all of us, the Missile Crisis passed into history, and the Cold War shifted from military confrontation to intense commercial competition. Nikita Khruschov’s infamous threat “we will bury you” still resonated, but that threat was no longer military, it was economic. Russian and American leaders were both hell-bent on proving to the world their system was best. In 1964, just out of high school, I had a first-hand glimpse of that global competition, in the city of Zagreb, in the former Yugoslavia.
A brief, multi-ethnic country, Yugoslavia came into being in 1946, uniting seven different ethnic enclaves: Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. Zagreb, the ancient and current capital of Croatia, is a crossroads city, strategically located on a major tributary of the Danube. It is a gateway between the ports on the Adriatic, and the countries of eastern Europe. As early as the Middle Ages the city had become a favored location for trade, with merchants bringing goods from near and far. In the 1850’s Zagreb’s mercantile tradition formalized into an annual, month-long Trade Fair, on a site next to the River Sava. Over time, various foreign governments built pavilions on the fairgrounds, to help promote their domestic businesses that engaged in international trade. The newer pavilions all bore the stamp of futuristic 1950’s architecture, in garish contrast to Zagreb’s elegant and traditional European building designs.
As an eighteen-year old American, before I became a Canadian, I joined my father in Zagreb. An engineer, Dad was part of a US Government contingent helping American manufacturers demonstrate their wares at the Fair. I got to help him with various tasks, and occasionally I put on my suit coat to attend official events at the US pavilion. Nobody seemed to care that I had zero qualifications and no command of the Serbo-Croatian language.
This was a significant summer, in our profoundly difficult father-son relationship. As a fully-formed albeit confused adult, I was no longer subject to his military-style childhood discipline. Our painful rupture over the Vietnam War, draft resistance and my move to Canada were still in the future. I was able to complete the tasks he assigned to me at the Fair, and I got to see him in action as an engineer and project manager. For an unprecedented few months we actually enjoyed each other’s company.
A major theme of Zagreb’s 1964 Fair was heavy equipment, since Yugoslavia’s President, Josip Brosz Tito, had started a major upgrade of his country’s road network. Accordingly Caterpillar, America’s premier heavy equipment manufacturer, sent over one of their massive D-9 crawler bulldozers, weighing in at 50 tonnes, to the Fair. The freighter carrying the dozer arrived at Rijeka, Yugoslavia’s port on the northern Adriatic, and Dad and I went to help with the unloading. The D-9 was nestled in the bottom of the freighter’s hold, surrounded by thousands of cases of that capitalist icon, Coca Cola. Dad pointed out that the dock’s crane was obviously too small to lift the dozer, but the dockworkers decided to give it a try anyhow. Appropriate cables were attached and after much shouting, the signal went up to the crane operator to start the lift. Slowly the D-9 inched upward, as cases of Coca Cola tumbled and slid into the newly vacated space underneath. At about a meter off the bottom of the ship’s hold, the crane’s main cable snapped and the D-9 crashed back down. A collective moment of stunned silence ensued. The cushioning effect of thousands of crushed Coca Cola bottles had prevented the bulldozer from coming to rest at the bottom of Rijeka’s harbor.
After replacing the cable and bringing in three more portable cranes to help, the D-9 was finally lifted, dripping with Coca-Cola, and loaded on to a flatbed rail car for the 150 kilometer trip to Zagreb. Like a fat man in an airplane seat, the massive dozer hung over both sides of the narrow-gauge rail car. By then it was getting dark, and right away another problem emerged: the overwidth dozer would knock down every road crossing sign between Rijeka and Zagreb. Dad and I then became part of a small, impromptu train crew: we jumped out ahead of every road intersection, unbolted the crossing signs, signaled the train through, and then replaced the signs. In spite of darkness and a language barrier, our little crew developed an immediate esprit-de-corps, and we became highly efficient at sign removal and replacement.
That nighttime trip was not only the first time I drank with my father, it was also my first exposure to Slivovitz, Yugoslavia’s national drink. I had no idea that the mild-mannered plum could produce such an explosive liquor. Explosive not only to the palate, but also in the dictionary sense, as I was to find out. Hunting was one of the few passions my Dad and I shared, and later that summer we went on a guided hunt in the Croatian Alps. Standing around the evening campfire, our guide tossed a shot of Slivovitz into the flames, just to show its inflammatory potency. A shot of gasoline would have had a lesser effect.
As soon as the American bulldozer was unloaded at the Fair site, an informal competition was set up with the equivalent Russian machine. Hundreds of spectators converged on an empty lot next to the Fairgrounds to watch the two machines lumber and snort about. The dozers raised and lowered their buckets, passed dangerously close to each other, and viciously tore up Zagreb soil. The event was terrifying and childish at the same time—a monster version of little boys playing with toy trucks in a sandbox. Or perhaps a diesel-infused parody of the larger conflict between the US and Russia. After an hour of ear-splitting action, the Caterpillar dozer emerged as the clear winner over the Russian entry in every category–size, speed, noise and particularly, in the volume of belching black exhaust.
Midway through month-long Fair, President Tito made an official visit. A bundle of contradictions, this diminutive man had literally created Yugoslavia by sheer force of personal will. Neither the Russians nor the Americans trusted him, but he was a master at playing those two superpowers against each other, to his new country’s benefit. A communist revolutionary and anti-Nazi guerrilla fighter, his political instincts ranged from democratic to paternalistic to authoritarian.
During his visit to the Fair Tito and his stunning fourth wife Jovanka came to the American pavilion. We stood in a line in front of the pavilion, and Tito shook hands with all of us. That is as close as I have ever come to greatness, or perhaps to force of personality. Tito then moved on, but was curious about a long, narrow glass-domed display building just outside the pavilion. His interpreter explained that it was a single bowling lane, fitted out with a brand new AMF automatic pinsetter, the latest in mid-Sixties American technology. Tito told the interpreter he wanted to try it out. The President was promptly ushered into the glassed-in dome, and handed a standard American bowling ball. Meanwhile a large entourage, including myself, gathered around the dome to watch.
Looking back on this event many decades later, I am convinced that I know what went through Tito’s mind at that precise moment. He would have said to himself “I am Josip Brosz Tito, the creator of Yugoslavia. Those are my people outside, watching me. I must master this Yankee technology, and I must not fail.”
Straightening up to his full height of five feet, six inches, Tito cradled the big American ball in his hand, ignored the finger holes, and in a single sweeping gesture, bowled a strike. Then he turned and bowed to the watching entourage. They erupted in cheers. It was at that moment that I fully understood the nature of political charisma.
Tito held the new country of Yugoslavia together through the sheer force of his own will. Soon after his death it began to break apart, and the brief dream that was Yugoslavia dissolved in 1990, followed by horrendous interethnic violence.
I do hold tight to the memory of my token brush with a world leader, while at the same time acknowledging Tito’s KGB-style crimes. The man was truly Shakespearean; a tragically flawed hero. But memories of the vanished and multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, and of that cloudless summer with my father, are forever.
I stand in a tiny, pathetic remnant of Canada’s hottest, driest ecosystem, surrounded by two excellent wineries. The loose, sandy soil of the Haynes Lease Ecological Reserve moves easily underfoot. There are patches of Antelopbrush here and there, and cactus is everywhere. I am seeing the usual invasive suspects: Bulbous Bluegrass, Alfalfa, Baby’s Breath. A thoroughly nasty Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) in the dirt parking lot, which I destroyed with my boot. Fortunately the scattered Dalmatian Toadflax is under attack by our biocontrol beetles.
Still, this one-hundred hectare Reserve provides a “moment,” so to speak, despite the traffic noise coming from Black Sage Road down below. (Black Sage is a common misnomer for Antelopebrush; it is not in the Sage family.) Talk about hot and dry. Here I am, at less than 300 meters above sea level, 0.04 minutes north of the 49th Parallel, on a southwest facing slope (the driest of the eight compass aspects), on sandy soil. No wonder there is a patch of cactus every meter or so.
Nestled amongst these ecological extremes and ironies is the historical irony of the Haynes family, the original purchasers of this land that once belonged to the Osoyoos Indian Band. This was another example of a common practice of the Dominion Government of the time; putting traditional Indigenous lands up for sale or long-term lease to white settlers.
As I walk further on to the Ecological Reserve, I notice a tall, narrow forb with branching leaves that had me stumped. I collect a specimen and upon returning home, I scan through various floras and narrowed it down to either a Mugwort, a Salvia, a Wormwood or a Sage. But this would not be the conventional grey, shrubby, long-lived Sage: it was obviously an annual or biennial. So I knew I was in a world of hurt. There are literally dozens of species belonging to these four families, some introduced, some native, and some native “ruderals” that mimic the invasive characteristics of introduced species.
Searching further, I discovered iNaturalist, an online wallow for plant junkies, birdnerds, spider freaks and several other categories of mildly obsessive naturalists. Instantly I felt right at home. As I surfed about, I found an entire online folder dedicated to the Haynes Lease itself. Stunning: 582 species have been found in that hundred hectares. The Marbled Purple Jumping Spider, the Nashville Warbler, the Columbia Plateau Pocket Mouse, the Cat-Faced Orb Weaver, the Columbia Moonglow Lichen, the Western Skink, plus 577 others, each with an accompanying photograph. True, Haynes Lease does include several distinct habitats, starting at the riparian oxbows of Osoyoos Lake, and then proceeding uphill to 600 meters asl, near the top of Throne Mountain. But still, the number of identified species is a remarkable indicator of the biodiversity of the Haynes Lease, as well as a tribute to local naturalists.
After an extended period of iNaturalist organism-surfing, I returned to my original quest, and found my mystery plant: Northern Wormwood (Artemisia campestris) a wide-ranging—and somewhat weedy—native biennial. One of the five hundred and eighty-two. I did look for one of my favorites from my California childhood: the Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard, but no luck. The last reliable sighting of this delightful little reptile in the Osoyoos area was in 1957.
I finally closed Inaturalist but it did prompt a speculation: now that we have counted all the individual species, what if we reversed that reductionist focus? What if we could identify, map out and count all the myriad relationships between these five hundred and eighty-two species? To go beyond a mere population census, and begin thinking of the Haynes Lease as a hundred-hectare organism?
Now there is a job for us mildly obsessive naturalists, and our computer-nerd kinfolk.
I find joy in unexpected connections. Call them daisy chains, serendipities, Vulcan mindmelds or whatever, they offer momentary celebrations of life’s connectedness.
I had one of these random events while searching for the Indigenous name of a mountain in the Chopaka country, west of Osoyoos in southern BC. “Black Mountain” is it’s settler appelation, which is totally unsatisfactory since there are several other Black Mountains in British Columbia. It is also known as “Crying Peak” and “Kruger Mountain West,” but these are no more evocative than the Black Mountain name. This modest 1300 meter peak stands by itself, overlooking the Nighthawk border crossing and the adjacent Similkameen River Valley.
I went on the hunt for the mountain’s name in Nsyilxcen, the language of the Syilx people of this region, and that led me to a linguistic website based in eastern Washington. I didn’t find the mountain’s name, but in browsing through the website, I found some early photographs of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. This massive dam was built in the 1930’s, and displaced large numbers of Syilx as it flooded a massive expanse of the Columbia River Valley. As I scrolled through photos of the workmen, I was reminded that my father was one of those thousands of workmen during the Great Depression.
So I decided to follow that daisy chain, to see if I could find a picture of Dad, fresh out of highschool, as he worked as a laborer on the dam in 1935. Using “Gayton” and “Grand Coulee Dam” as internet search words, I scrolled through the first few Google pages without success, but at the bottom of each succeeding page was that enticing “next page” button. By page five or so, I knew I was getting further and further afield, but then suddenly the name Anna Hadwick Gayton popped up.
One of the attributes of an unusual surname, like mine, means there is some statistical chance you might be related. So I dove into that webpage, and soon discovered a family connection. I have always been weak on family lexicological terms, so I can best describe the connection this way: Anna Gayton (1899-1977) was the daughter of my paternal great-grandfather’s brother.
Digging further, I found that Anna grew up in southern California, and was the fourth woman in the US to obtain a Ph.D in Anthropology. The title of her 1928 dissertation was “The Narcotic Plant Datura in Aboriginal American Culture.” She did fieldwork with the Yokut and Western Mono Indians, curated Peruvian textiles and pottery, and studied the religious festivals of the Azorean Portuguese community in California. She was also the Chair of the American Folklore Society, back when folklore study was a recognized discipline. Her extensive list of research publications spans five decades.
I am humbled by this woman’s grit and determination, finding success in the male-dominated discipline of anthropology. I am also intrigued by the great breadth of her research interests. Could some of her fierce and wide-ranging genes have been passed down to me, but they simply haven’t expressed themselves yet? A comforting but illusory thought. I will settle for the momentary joy of unexpected connection.
After a protracted literary dry spell, a new book of mine is out: The Sky and the Patio (New Star Books, Vancouver). In this collection of 25 essays, I use our backyard patio as a springboard to delve into our human relationship with nature. The essays are rooted in the Okanagan, and embrace such diverse topics as turtles, winemaking, antelopebrush, salmon, fire ecology and book collecting.
The book is difficult to categorize, but the closest fit would be “nature writing,” a term which evokes the now-nostalgic era of Thoreau and Muir, Leopold and Lopez. However, three major contemporary challenges have fundamentally disrupted this romantic literary tradition: the loss of nature, climate change, and Indigenous reconciliation. Writing from within my own honky agnostic settler perspective, my essays attempt to confront those challenges, while still making room for personal communion with nature.
My previous books have garnered a number of writing awards, including the BC Book Award, the Canadian Science Writers Award and the US National Outdoor Book award, among others.
This pathway is narrow, completely enclosed by a towering canopy of trees. My bike moves me silently over the bark mulch path. Emerging into sunlight again, on the eastern edge of Beacon Hill Park, I ride through a quiet and tree-lined neighborhood of Victorian homes, and then back to our temporary residence. A working vacation brought us here; we rented a small basement apartment on Dallas Road, a few blocks from Beacon Hill Park. Running parallel to Dallas Road is the linear Waterfront Park, a wonderful series of bike trails, separate pedestrian paths and green space, all fronting the shore of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The Waterfront Park and the trails are frequented by bikers, rollerbladers, runners, walkers and more dogs than I have ever seen in one place.
During the day I can look across the Straits to that long attenuated arc that is the Olympic Peninsula. At night the distant flash of the Dungeness Lighthouse reminds me of my childhood in nearby Sequim, Washington.
At the west end of the Waterfront Park is the cruise ship terminal. These massive, fourteen-story, carbon-belching floating petri dishes arrive, disgorge four thousand gawking passengers for eight hours, and then depart again, off to the next scenic destination. What a way to kill the planet, in total luxury.
I am not a fan of British colonialism, but I have to make an exception for their late Victorian domestic architecture, on full display here in Victoria. The fronts of these old homes are delightful, with stairways, porches, balconies, railings, stained glass, stonework and flowerboxes. Their small front yards are equally delightful: instead of stereotypical bland lawns, they sport a profusion of ornamental plantings, together with curving walkways and statuary. About every 33rd house is a modern black box (literally), a soulless, blank construction of glass and prefab. Their total lack of architecture is bad enough on its own, but in the context of these Victorian neighborhoods, these newer homes stand out like warts. I agree with my colleague who says: a house needs a face.
Bikes, many of them electric, are everywhere in this town. The City has gone to great pains to make the urban streets bike friendly, and an internet-based biking map lets you plan your route to minimize riding in traffic. The Dallas Road bike trail has a counter that typically registers six hundred bikers a day. When I am on one of the City’s dedicated two-way downtown bike lanes, with a concrete barrier between me and car traffic, I feel like an unworthy member of the privileged elite. Victoria has recognized that urban biking is here to stay, and has built the infrastructure to accommodate it. I wish the towns and cities of my home valley of the Okanagan would do the same.
I have had a lifelong interest in snorkeling, and I was able to indulge myself in the waters along Dallas Road. As a rather large person, I struggle to get into wetsuit, boots, gloves and bonnet, even though they are all XL. By the time I am fully suited up, I am exhausted. But then I immerse myself, adjust to the cold of the Straits, unfog my mask, blow out the snorkel and allow the magic to take over. Drifting along with minimal effort, I look down into a totally alien but fascinating environment of seaweed, rock and sand. My vision is tunnel, only encompassing a square meter or two, but it is a moving picture of total fascination. My very being floats in a state of unhinged serenity. The occasional crab or bullhead or starfish is simply an added delight.
My first time snorkeling here was at Clover Point, but then I discovered it is Victoria’s sewage outlet. I changed locations immediately, but it did remind me of Mr. Floatie, the wonderful enormous brown turd costume, complete with sailor hat and bowtie, worn by protestor James Skwarok. James objected to Victoria dumping its raw sewage into the Straits. He and his fecal alter ego were instrumental in forcing the City to finally begin treating their sewage.
In my urban cycling explorations, I was struck by the number and size of heritage churches. Most early immigrants to Victoria were English or Scottish, and yet Catholic churches are everywhere, testimony to the early missionary zeal—and wealth–of that religion.
The first morning after our arrival, the traffic on Dallas Road was incredibly noisy. I was about to seek other accommodations when I discovered it was Deuce Days, a parade of old hotrods and souped-up vehicles. Later I was scanning the Times Colonist newspaper, and found this scathing letter to the editor, which I quote in full:
Deuce Days, a redneck celebration of toxic masculinity and dinosaur car culture, is the last thing Victoria needs.
Inviting this invasion of older white heterosexual males to parade their fetishized internal-combustion vehicles only perpetuates their notion of entitled privilege and the deeply entrenched interests of car culture, both of which Victorians have fought long and hard to put behind us.
Deuce Days belongs in a backwater hick town where these good ol’ boys can hide from progress and hope for a return to the good old days when men were measured by the length of their car.
This letter triggered a whole tirade of angry response letters. I get the sense that Victorians have strongly held opinions.
Cities and nature are inimical to each other: that is a fundamental axiom. However, I do see a glimmer of collaboration in Victoria. Of course nature has outdone itself here by providing meandering bays, points and estuaries, frequent unbuildable rock outcrops, and vegetation that lends itself to parks, walkways and tree-lined streets. Still I have to congratulate the hundred thousand residents of Victoria; they have done a far better environmental job than has Kelowna, a city of comparable size.
Victoria’s upscale neighborhood of Oak Bay intends to ban all gasoline-powered lawn equipment by 2026. I can’t wait to read the angry letters to the editor, from the owners of fetishized riding lawnmowers.
A few weeks ago we organized a benefit fundraiser for the people of Ukraine. I wanted the money to go for the purchase of weapons but I was voted down in favor of humanitarian support. The evening event was hastily organized but very successful; we raised over four thousand dollars. Event participants got to enjoy Ukrainian food, music, singing, and readings. I volunteered to read briefly from two Ukrainian writers: Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) and Isaac Babel (1894-1940). Both writers came from Ukraine but lived much of their lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lives of both ended violently, in the endless conflicts and purges of the Russian empire.
Taras Shevchenko’s 1845 poem Testament is heartrendingly appropriate to the current Russian genocide in Ukraine:
When I die,
let me rest, let me lie
amidst Ukraine’s broad steppes.
Let me see
the endless fields and steep slopes
I hold so dear.
Let me hear
the Dnipro’s great roar.
And when the blood
of Ukraine’s foes flows
into the blue waters of the sea,
that’s when I’ll forget
the fields and hills
and leave it all
and pray to God.
Until then, I know no God.
So bury me, rise up,
and break your chains.
Water your freedom
with the blood of oppressors.
And then remember me
with gentle whispers
and kind words
in the great family
of the newly free.
Isaac Babel is one of the most anomalous and idiosyncratic figures in modern world literature. Born into a middle-class Jewish merchant family in Odessa, he thrived in that port city’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and cosmopolitan environment. His literary talents were recognized by the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky. He served in the Red Calvary, associating with Cossacks who were the absolute antithesis of the Jewish intellectual. I first got to know Babel in my highschool Bolshevik days, when I read Russian writers voraciously, and exclusively. The book I have, Isaac Babel: Collected Stories, was published in 1960 and contains a lengthy but valuable introduction to Babel’s writing by Lionel Trilling. Diving back in to that book after sixty years was like bumping into an old and respected friend, one who is idiosyncratic and full of surprises. Babel’s stories are highly condensed as he navigates through Odessa neighborhoods, Polish battlefields, Jewish gangster rivalries, whorehouses and Cossack battalions. The stories are all very personal, but somehow he writes as both spectator and participant, simultaneously. I suspect Babel was sexist even back in his unreconstructed era, since he was incapable of describing any female character without mentioning their bosoms.
I’ll end this with a couple of Babel quotes:
“A well-crafted story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story”
“In our day, bad taste is no longer a personal defect; it’s a crime. Even worse, bad taste is counter revolution”
Back in 1984 I was assessing agricultural land in southern Saskatchewan. This was the beginning of the era of “suitcase farming,” where operators left their rural homes and moved to nearby cities. My work often took me by these abandoned farmsteads. Passing one, I noticed a curious rusty metal box in a refuse pile. It turned out to be the electrical control box for a wind turbine. Previously I had worked for Saskatchewan’s short-lived Office of Energy Conservation, and wind-powered electric generation had been an area of interest. So I took the box home with me.
Long story short, the box subsequently gathered dust over the course of a couple of decades and a couple of moves, until a basement water leak meant I had to move a bunch of stored stuff. There it was, long forgotten but suddenly a very tangible artifact.
The control box is an integral part of the Jacobs Wind Electric Plant, Model 25, producing 40 watts of DC power. The Jacobs story actually starts in 1922, on an isolated farm in Vida, Montana. Just to orient you, Vida is south of Wolf Point, Montana, which is directly south of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. Young Marcellus Jacobs and his brother Joe are playing around with primitive wind generator designs, hoping to provide some electric power to their farm home. (In the 1920’s, large American cities had electricity, but rural electrification for places like eastern Montana was still years away.) Marcellus had learned to fly, so they had access to two-bladed airplane propellers, but they soon discovered that a two-blade design created too much vibration, so they created a three-blade design, which went on to become the standard for wind electric generation.
Marcellus and Joe started a small factory in Vida, producing and selling wind turbines, towers, control boxes and storage batteries to farms in the area. Much of the demand came from the desire for access to radio programming. The Jacobs boys created a wonderful newspaper ad that showed their mother Ida ironing with an electric iron while she listened to the radio with a headset. The Jacobs company became quite successful and in the late 1920’s, they moved it to Minneapolis, to be closer to parts suppliers.
In the late 1930’s, rural electrification became a federal priority in the US, and interest in home-based windpower generation dropped off dramatically. However, this was not the case on the Canadian prairies, which had plenty of wind, and did not connect to the electrical grid until, in some cases, the 1950s. So literally hundreds of used Jacobs wind plants migrated from the American midwest to rural Canadian communities like Melita, Manitoba, Peebles, Saskatchewan, and Milk River, Alberta. Hence the origin of my rusty Jacobs control box.
The rediscovery of the control box in the basement prompted an exploration of an equally dusty file cabinet, for my old files on wind power. In the cabinet I found a 1985 letter addressed to me from Marcellus Jacobs, answering my request for more information on the company’s history. There is a fine line between personal archival discovery and forgetfulness.
The Jacobs plants did set the gold standard for wind electric generation. Not only did they innovate the three-blade design, Marcellus and Joe also solved two fundamental problems with wind turbines; controlling overspeeds in strong winds, and keeping internal bearings lubricated. Jacobs Wind Electric Company is the oldest renewable energy company in the US. Marcellus’ son Joe maintains a company website at https://www.jacobswind.net/
I have had my suspicions all along, but the Convoy has forced us to acknowledge it: Canada has Bubbas. Not just a few, but a whole demographic. The Bubbas are anti-vaxxers, they are comfortable with falsehoods, they are racist and their conception of personal rights and freedoms extends no further than their own selfish selves.
Certainly part of the motivation for the Convoy was sheer exhaustion: after two long years, we are all exhausted. The Convoy says “we’re done with Covid.” Unfortunately, Covid ain’t done with us, yet.
It is a sad commentary that the 10,000 Bubbas who assembled in Ottawa for a weekend have gotten far more press than the 10,000 and more Canadian health workers who have put their lives on the line every day for two years, caring for vaxxed and unvaxxed alike.
I guess we can thank the pandemic for exposing the Bubba demographic, for bringing it right out into the open. As we move forward, as a people and as a country, we must examine how this demographic came to be. Three institutions mightdeserve special scrutiny: families, our educational system, and social media.
There will always be lone Bubbas, but Canada is too good a country to accept and resign itself to an entire Bubba demographic.
What a disaster has been perpetrated on to our Canadian flag. Prior to the Convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, seeing a flag was a pleasant, patriotic reminder of this great country we are privileged to live in. Now, post-Convoy, whenever I see a flag, particularly one on a vehicle, my eyes instantly narrow to slits and I grind my teeth, knowing the toxic message it conveys.
We Canadians have a job to do. We have to take our national flag back from the Bubbas, carefully decontaminate it, and restore its true meaning: the symbol of a country whose people care about each other, and the truth.