HOW CANADA'S FALL REVIVED
A FLAGGING SOUL PART 2
I’ve seen my fair share of some of the most breathtaking places on earth and I can honestly say that Canada’s fall is the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Witnessing the fall first hand brought to mind the sentiment of a favourite poem. Just the last four lines of Keat’s, ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’, convey the same wonder and awe the fall triggered.
“Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”
That sonnet kills me every time I read it. The sense of awe, inspired me see the world for myself, including the Sea of Cortez. And now Surmise-Silence-Staring captured the fall's emotional effect.
By Canada’s Thanksgiving in mid-October, the trees sang with gold, saffron, amber, honey, marigold, mango, coffee, mocha, emerald, lime, sage, ruby, rust, rose, scarlet, crimson, post box, pillar box, cardinal, coral, claret, burgundy, plum, brick, garnet, magenta and mulberry.
Brown? Nothing as ordinary as brown.
If I was a creative director at Farrow & Ball paints, those posh bods who sell something like 32 shades of white, I’d be booking me a little biz trip to see next year’s fall. All in the name of creative inspiration. They are, after all, the people who came up with a million shades of brown including one called Elephant’s Breath and another called Mouse’s Back.
For the first time I understood why Canada’s national flag is a full blast red maple leaf. You could stop traffic with one of those chaps. Although, it is truer to say that the redness comes in many different hues. Sometimes it’s less traffic lights and more juicy, Gala apple.
I was told that the particularly stunning reds were the making of sugar maples. There were also silver maples, striped maples and red maples. But it was the sugar maples who were the drama queens with their gold to scarlet diva dos.
I read that maple leaves go through the entire colour wheel in a year, from several shades of green to yellow to orange and then to a million shades of red in the fall. They traverse their own colour orbit.
Of course, fall doesn’t happen overnight. I arrived in the middle of September when the trees were still wearing their summer togs. I only had to look out of one cottage window to see maple, oak, cedar, birch, beech leaves jostling for position amongst pine and spruce needles. My apologies if I’ve failed at identifying the species.
I’ve since heard that trees aren’t fond of mingling. They like to live in families. “With mothers and children,” communicating and helping each other. If you’re interested listen to BBC Radio 4, Start the Week, with Andrew Marr, ‘Trees: a wood wide web; the hidden lives of trees” here
To be fair, Canada’s trees seemed to be doing just fine despite being so hugger mugger. Maybe Canadian trees embody the national trait of acceptance. That, or they were all fighting and bickering out there amongst themselves, unbeknownst to me, with shouts of, “Leaf us alone,” between neighbouring families.
“Going for a Walk’ turned into, “Going to look at Leaves”. I’d return with leaves in my pocket, examining their colours and new shapes, wanting to find out more about who and what they were. The Ontario Nature Guide book was taken out of the cottage bookshelf and never went back until I left the lake for good.
Who knew Ontario’s oak leaves are five times the size of an English oak’s leaves? Who knew Ontario's leaves appear to have the same texture as English oak leaves but are waxier and stiffer? No, I didn’t realise I wanted to know that stuff either. Not until life threw me a chance to stop, look, discover and delight.
You know when you see a small child walking so slowly next to a rather desperate mum or dad? Every step takes an age because every leaf and blade captures their young mind? Now I get it.
Every day was different.
One day maple leaves were thousands of burning candle flames against a sun clear blue sky.
On another day a single maple announced its glorious new crimson cape in a stage-y shout on the road out of Haliburton.
One day, a type of tree was rusted and dead from the middle down but verdant and alive from the middle up. It looked like it had undergone some kind of hair dying technique; a sort of balayage.
On another day, sumac fingers blazed trails with hot scarlet.
One day, I looked high above, to see the vault of a cathedral, etched and crafted from interlacing and overlapping yellow, gold and green canopies.
On another day, the deep mulberry of an expensive leather handbag, was stitched into the tapestry of treetop on the far side of the lake.
I once heard that marble sculpture is about revealing what is already within the marble block. The point was that Michelangelo’s David was already within the uncut marble and the act of sculpture was simply to reveal what lay within. Watching the fall, day by day, felt like having something as secret, unfolding in the same way.
The sheer variety of leaves and their individual characteristics brought to mind diving above coral reefs and their myriad inhabitants. An Egyptian diver once said to me, “Part of the beauty of diving is you can’t catch it. You can’t own it. It can't be yours."
Leaves became my only consideration and conversation. I morphed into the local nutter, eulogising about the glory of the leaves to any passer-by, dog walker, shop keeper, friend of friends or gas station operator. Do let me know if you want to see my 3,790,424,851,427 photos of leaves. I have films too. It’s not a problem. I can put them on a stick for you.
On the first Sunday morning at the cottage, I sat at the water's edge with a mug of tea and saw something I'd never seen before. Mist was moving from the right to the left. A mile of mist, inches above the lake, was passing by, silently. Out to the left, small swirls gathered in groups and ascended. Unfurling. Tumbling upwards. The lake was being called to prayer. As the mist lifted up, it unveiled golden trees in the morning's lit beauty, reflected on the water's still knowing.
It wasn't just the colours that stole my senses. It was the sounds too.
October winds coaxed leaves into comforting soundtracks as I stared out of the window or lay in bed at night. Have you ever stopped and listened to hundreds upon thousands upon millions of leaves sending prayers out into the world?
Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh. Listen here.
The sound soothed the soul and brought to mind words from another favourite poem, 'Words for It' by Julia Cameron.
"I wish I could take language
And fold it like cool, moist rags.
I would lay words on your forehead.
I would wrap words on your wrists.
"There, there," my words would say -
Or something better.
I would ask them to murmur,
"Hush" and "Shh, shhh, it's all right."
What wasn’t soothing was the sound of hurricane Florence crashing her way north to Quebec. I hadn’t been in the cottage for even four full days, when around midday I started to wonder if it wasn’t just a tad blowy. I wouldn’t want to be a wuss but there were large branches flying past the window, white caps on the lake, ball bearings of rain drumming the corrugated metal roof and a red plastic kayak bounced past on angry waves, without an owner.
I didn’t have access to news or weather reports. I had no idea if this was the norm.
When was it acceptable to think, “This is a bit too windy?”
When was it OK to think, “You know what, this isn’t right?”
When a 40-foot tree came down, ripping out the power cable and narrowly missing the cottage roof. That’s when.
But fear not. In Canada you’re only ever a call and a text away from help it seems. It doesn’t matter how hurricane-y, rainy or dark, someone will venture over with whatever tool is needed to make things shipshape again.
This time it was the lake neighbour, on his Arctic Cat, chainsaw balancing on what would be a bonnet if a quad bike had one, to cleave up the white birch trunk and free the leccy cable. All for a handshake … and a beer.
Eventually, autumnal weather ushered leaves away from branches and on to trails. Man, does Canada have a lot of leaves. I now understand why autumn is called fall. As English kids we used to laugh about this weird word ‘fall’. “Ha ha ha, they call it fall, not autumn. Ha ha ha, weirdos”.
Call me slow, but its because a lot of leaves fall off trees. Everywhere. Mounds of them. On every verandah and step, every track and dock. Now, all in urgent need of removal.
I had just a broom for the job but the locals swayed leaf blowers over the drifts and away from their properties. I’m told that some Canadians even had leaf suckers that, stop me now, magically squashed leaves into handy leaf-logs for burning in wood stoves. Bloody show-offs.
Actually, the leaf-log-maker was just one of the many cool things about Canadians. They had a piece of kit for just about everything.
That’s not in any way to diminish the hard work that goes in to, for example, chainsawing a tree.
Nor does it diminish the physical strength of a neighbour who … climbed up a tree, in a pair of Crocs, carrying a chainsaw and then chainsawed several feet above his head to take off the top of the tree. That being the very same tree he had his knees wrapped around. His only nod to any effort was, ‘Ey righ, it was just the sawdust falling in my face that made it a bit difficult.” Did I mention this chap was 61 years old and retired? Not 21.
But with a pioneering DNA, Canadians will use all manner of different tools to help with frankly, living in harsh climates.
My all-time favourite? The mechanical log splitter. I’d been worrying that I might actually have to wield an axe to split logs, with visions of the metal head flying off and hitting someone - or me in the head - or smashing a window. But fear not, again. This was Canada. The mechanical log splitter sliced logs with just the press of a foot. Whir forward. Whir backward.
In second place, there was the ‘plant-a-field-of-trees-in-a-couple-of-hours’ tool. I didn’t see it in action but I saw the results. A tractor towed a piece of kit that not only punched in uniform holes but dropped a tree sapling into each hole, with teeny weeny branches to boot. The results. A grid of young trees ready to grow and the tractor driver already down at McKecks Tap & Grill with his Coors Light.
Not exactly a tool, more of a trick, you need to flush a steak down the loo every once in a while. It pimps the bugs, so I’m told. Indeed, I came to learn quite a lot about septic tanks in logging country. Which, when you think about it, is quite fitting.
But it has to be said, all those beautiful, poetry-inspiring leaves did seem a little unfair on animals. Holding yet another mug of double-bagged tea, I watched a bright orange squirrel leap from the verandah and away from a predator. Out of sight maybe, but the squirrel rustled its great escape under the leaves for 40 yards or so. If I’d been the predator I would have been listening to every move whilst setting my table for dinner.
The problem of noisy leaves was presumably a concern to deer as well, given that hunting season had started. I mean, really? How do you tip-toe quietly over a thick wad of crackling leaves? And all the while knowing a gun is pointing your way.
About a month in my friends came up for the weekend to find me barely able to say four coherent words. Cabin fever had set in. I was trucked back to Toronto for a week of human contact, Wi-Fi, TV and concrete. I couldn't wait to get back to the woods.
I returned to the cottage a week later but without mice and by then, with all the leaves downed and blown or swept away, my attention turned to birds.
Unlike English woodpeckers who are too snooty to be seen in public, Canada’s woodpeckers are loud, proud and look-at-me lads. Black and white go-faster stripes, jazzed up on serious tude, they haven’t a care in the world.
Tap-tap-zero-fucks-given-here-mate-tap-tap into your cottage walls they go.
What with the little chickadees wearing their black feathered caps, red-breasted nuthatches, their white-breasted brethren and bad boy blue jays and I can tell you there was quite the matinee out there in the trees.
As a Londoner, I’m used to pigeons pecking at discarded Nando’s fried chicken boxes, only taking flight when a passing minicab disturbs them. That or hanging upside down and very dead in anti-birds nets attached to the upper floors of buildings opposite where I might be in a meeting.
My new Ontario flying friends were roger-dodger-over-and-out flying wizards. Sitting in a hammock high up in the tree branches, I spent hours watching the show. Up, down, right, left, up, down, left, right, through that gap, over and around the tree branch, roll, straight onto the verandah railing. A quick peck or two and they’d be clearing the landing strip for the next one to take their turn. They had characters too. One or two were shameless queue bargers. There’s always a few who have to ruin it for the law abiders.
The only thing that was missing from the brave Soyers Lake air elite was chirruping. Canadian birds aren’t big on chirruping. Then again it might have something to do with them stuffing their pie holes with birdseed I’d naughtily sprayed around to attract them.
There was one bird I’ll be glad never to hear from again. On day two, I was pottering along in the woods when woop, woop, woop. God forbid, I could hear the air pressure of something massive above my head. By the time I looked up I’m pretty sure the space ship from Close Encounters had passed over. Blimey, had I narrowly missed being carried off? I found out later it was probably a hawk or maybe even an eagle. My, by now, mank of un-brushed hair had presumably looked like a small animal from above.
And so it was. Minutes turned into hours, which turned into days. As if the leaves and the birds weren't enough, deer bounced over trails to tree cover on the opposite side, their white tails held high. One or two deer ate their evening fayre outside the cottage door, unfazed by me staring at them.
A beaver scooted out from the lakeside bank. Years before, in a car headed for the Blue Mountains in Australia, a friend said, “Have you ever seen a beaver in action?” Um, no, but I would have liked to have seen a dam being made. I didn’t see that but I did see a lodge. Huge great pile of mud and wood slicked out of an inky lake. I was told they’re very cosy inside, with different floors, maisonette style. It looked like a swampy, freezing place to me. Not that dissimilar to my falling apart, damp Victorian flat back in London then.
On the subject of beavers, I was helpfully informed there is a medical condition, Beaver Fever. Not what you might think at first. It’s an upset tummy from drinking a few plops of beaver dung in lake water. Makes you think twice about going for a dip.
As if all of that wasn't enough, coyote yipped on the opposite side of the lake.
A mink slinked down by the boat dock donning a beautiful chocolate brown coat.
Loons occasionally called their shy salute across the lake.
Orange squirrels screamed. Never heard anything like it. The roar was so loud, no volume control, whatsoever. I was led to believe that as they were wild squirrels they had more predators and so were noisier than their fat urban friends.
Have you ever watched a squirrel eat? It has two moves. Down or up. There’s no in between. It goes perfectly back to sitting position every time. Amazing core strength.
A few snakes were flattened on the tracks. One was flattened in to a heart shape. Again, the irony.
I'm told a bear was in the woods a mile away. Maybe a moose too. Or was I being teased?
Brits like to think we have crazy-mad weather. We boast about our ability to endure whatever the Atlantic fronts dump on us. But if our weather is moody, Ontario’s weather is bi-polar. Three consecutive days make the point.
Day one. Pouring rain.
Day two. Blue skies and hot sun. T-shirt weather.
Day three. Snow. And snow that stayed on the ground, not that whispy stuff Britain gets.
The snow was a new source of excitement. But my enthusiasm was quelled by the Canadians solemnly explaining that snow in October was effectively a 6 month prison sentence to Arctic-grade boots with shovel-shaped rubber toecaps, shapeless shin-length goose-down jackets, thermal underwear, runny noses and dry skin.
I’d be surprised if any relationship starts with that sartorial look. Once you’re by the fireside with your boots off, I can see how the heat gets turned up on romance. But getting to that stage in a new relationship must be tricky. You pay the dinner bill and the dating couple have to pull on weird flipper boots to leave the restaurant. The only reasonable comment is, “Actually, you know what I think I’ll head home".
Canada. You can keep your passion-killing shovel-shaped winter boots but spending time in your fall was what my soul needed. Falling out of love with Adland, opened a door for me to fall in love with Canada’s fall and with that, fall in love with the natural world again.
Watching the transformation from summer effulgence to winter preparedness was as spell-binding as the ever-forming clouds over Everest; as intriguing as the Great Pyramids; as moving as pulling into an Istanbul dawn after a 50-hour train journey to hear Allahu akbar called from the city’s many minarets. It was as delicate and detailed as the Taj Mahal; as heart-expanding as a slow-moving herd of African elephants, with a baby tottering amongst their adult legs; and as profound as a pair of humpbacks diving towards a Pacific sunset, one last wave from their primordial flukes.
It was one of the most beautiful things I've seen.
It was one of the world's greatest experiences and my soul was blessed to have lived inside and alongside it. I can only thank my friends for the opportunity.
Despite being alone in a cottage in the woods, I didn’t have any spooky mediumship experiences.
I thought a ghost was playing bad jazz at 6 am for three nights in a row but it turned out to be the radio coming on automatically.
My dead dad didn't make an appearance. I half expected him to show up, given how much he loved Canada. When I was a small girl, he returned from a visit and my young heart was captivated by his enthusiastic descriptions of the fall.
A dead man and a dead woman did stand in the kitchen area one night watching a group of us talking and laughing. He had a tall hat on. She stood several feet away from him. But they weren’t scary. Just curious. Harmless.
However, I did have a very profound, call it spiritual, experience, in the last few days.