Authors: George McWhirter, Richard Van Camp, Holly Schofield, Linda Rogers, Sean Virgo, Rati Mehrotra, Geoffrey W. Cole, Phil Dwyer, Kate Story, Leslie Goodreid, Nina Munteanu, Halli Villegas, John Oughton, Frank Westcott, Wendy Bone, Peter Timmerman, Lynn Hutchinson-Lee, with an afterword by internationally acclaimed writer and filmmaker, Dan Bloom.
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The picture above my head seems to be the new fashion for airport hotel rooms. It's ironic, the primitive, innocent land, nostalgia twice removed. It's a scaled-up version of what we used to call airport art, the kind of scene that people brought back from Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, last-minute gifts – plaques, coasters, placemats – for friends they might have forgotten.
Three figures stand in an African landscape, herdsmen or hunters, their red capes vivid against the bleached savannah.
They don't have actual bodies, just the scarlet folds of those capes, with limbs black and sticklike as the spears or staffs held upright at their sides. From behind, the heads are plain black ovals – a swift, looping brushstroke would do it – and the rest is almost calligraphic: a domed hut to the right, two goats conjured with the barest of lines, and at the left a thorn tree in silhouette. Once you'd mastered the style, you could knock off something like that in twenty minutes.
Yet if you came upon those figures on a rock face in deepest Sahara, three ghosts from a teeming, fertile time, half-erased by the scouring winds, you would not think them slick and inconsequential – they would be mysterious, sorrowful, haunting.
They were what I saw first when I switched on the light and closed the door behind me, and then as I set down my bag by the desk they appeared in the mirror above it, behind my own face. I went to look out through the half-drawn curtains and as I watched a late plane, its wing light pulsing while it circled, they were there again, reflected in the dark glass – not the picture itself but the mirror, a reflection at two removes, back and forth – and in a moment of vertigo, as though trapped in an infinite regression, I reached for the back of a chair to steady myself.
At my age, when the deck tilts under you for even a second there's a sudden reduction of mind to brain, of psyche to biology, the most simple of terrors. I sat down in that chair, breathing, as I have so often instructed patients in disarray, just breathing. The runway lights were an avenue, floating out there in the darkness as a plane – the same one? – came in from behind the hotel, crushingly close for a moment, dim portholes along its great fish flanks hinting at other lives.
I am tired, of course; after such a day, I have every reason, and unreason too, to feel drained, but the same disembodied feeling came over me as earlier tonight on the dark highway – that I was a watcher, detached, perhaps already dead. Between worlds anyway as, of course, I am, in a room seven stories above the earth, and my flight back to the New World mere hours away.
Will I sleep now, I wonder; the fitful sleep of these last few years? And if I do, what dreams may come, what scraps of memory and accusation from this rudderless day? As I undressed, my eyes were drawn back to the three herdsmen; my face came close to them, reflected on the glass, as I climbed into bed. They stare off towards the horizon, a line of low hills and the pale, sandy distance between.
My face on the pillow looks back at me in the mirror across the room. I am eighty-three years old, the age at which both of my parents died, and the scale of things has changed.
I came prepared for that, or so I thought, but a path can feel so unfamiliar when you retrace your steps. And sixty-five years is a long about-face.
I set out this morning, lighthearted, relieved – a pleasant sense of escape and truancy.
My brother's funeral, an era closed I suppose, though I had played so little part in it. I owed it to him to be there, but I was a stranger in that correct, perfunctory ritual, and his children afterwards were indifferent to my presence, concerned only to get back to their lives. Perhaps with their mother – her tense, polite hospitality – there was a veiled resentment for their responsibilities during my mother's last years, as though my paying for it all had been an abdication. As perhaps it was.
Her relief this morning when I told her I was leaving a day early, to revisit my childhood haunts and stay the night near the airport – just a few hours' detour in this small land. It was an impulse to escape, nothing more. How could I have guessed that by midday I would be entering the country of signs that I have spent my life helping troubled souls to navigate?
The sky, when I left the highway and took the narrow road towards the moorlands, began to seem as wide as our prairies, and as the fields and hedgerows gave way to bracken and drystone walls, it felt closer too. Fifty miles here is like three hundred in Canada, and more various: you can pass through three different landscapes in an hour. There were stone outcrops now to each side, and patches of heather. I was edging towards memory, and when I crested the hill and the grey moors unfolded before me, every cell in my body responded.
For Cicero, memory was a villa and garden – rooms, corridors, niches, patios, pathways, pools, statues: knowledge arranged by precise and elegant design. I have used that model with patients over the years, but always to guide them on through, towards the back gate, the hidden door in the wall that opens to wilderness. Fugitive memory waits in the weather out there, in hollows and thickets and ruins too, the haunts of outlaws and anchorites, worlds within worlds that may open inwards, as scale reverses itself.
The moors were my childhood's horizon, the hinterland where travellers might perish in winter storms and where you could conjure the howling of long-extinct wolves. Yet in summer the larks sang overhead there, the air smelled of honey and distances, harebells and cotton grass nodded in the constant hill wind, and you could shelter in a heather dell, a miniature world with the sky vault and clouds above you and the earth's rumours close to your ear.
There are no walls out there, the road is an alien thread on the land's ancient contours, the scraggy sheep live as wild creatures for most of the year. I rolled down the window and at once heard the two-note cry of a curlew, a plaintive legato that will still haunt the moors, I imagine, when our own race has vanished.
And it was easy enough to imagine myself the last person left on earth, driving that one-lane road. Not a single vehicle the whole journey. At every turnout, signs warned of extreme risk of fire, no picnicking, do not stray from the roadside. The moors were not themselves, except to the eye, and even there some essence was missing – instead of a purple wash across the whole landscape, the heather was blooming only in scattered hollows. And where were the sheep? I saw just one the whole way, a gaunt, stunned-looking creature, staring off into nowhere. It began to seem desolate, under that cloudless sky.
Yet there was life there still – some small birds looping above the heather, a rabbit darting across the road and evidence of its brethren further on, two or three carcasses flattened and dry on the asphalt. I heard a curlew again and then, across a ravine to my right, two brown hawks were hanging motionless against the sky.
That is such a familiar sight near my home, that I had driven on quarter of a mile before I realized what a marvel they would have been in my childhood, the excitement and wonder I would have felt, the urge to rush home and share it – Buzzards! Two of them! No, I'm not making it up, honestly! I stopped and backed up to the nearest turnout. I suppose I wanted to see through those innocent eyes again, but as I shut the car door a grouse burst out of the heather below me – its wings a loud blur of alarm before it went gliding off, crying Go back, go back. That's how the old people heard it: Go back, go back, go back, and I remembered Billie, a girl called Billie. I whispered her name to the hill wind and my hand reached for my touchstone.
It's a commonplace in our practice – the moments where the synchronistic intersects with the causal and conscious. Those are the crossroads, the gateways, we're always seeking, the best chance for integration, for healing even – but a psychquake is different. Causal realities are obliterated.
I was not thinking and remembering as I am now; I was lost in a moment neither there nor faraway. Yet it was decided. Half an hour down the road I would turn off, and take a right fork towards the drowned valley.
So, I found myself coasting the long slope that Billie and I toiled up on our bicycles, past places where we lay in the springy heather, down to the humpback stone bridge. Were our young ghosts there, hands on the parapet, watching the stream below and the little trout darting through the shallows? The stream itself was a mere ghost now, a scant trickle between the white stones, catching the light as I crossed.
I was driving very slowly, I think, assailed by atmospheres, images, echoes, scents, that were not quite memories. That must be what time travel would be like, not at all as in fantasy novels; and what is memory, anyway, but time travel – spasms and islands of unreliable fiction, surfacing with the logic of dreams? And all at once, I was over the next rise and driving through forest. It should not have surprised me – I was part of the student crew that planted the first trees the summer before I emigrated – but I had forgotten.
The road through the trees was dappled with sunlight, strewn and in places adrift with the tan needles. The trees we had planted, Canadian spruce, were harvested long ago – you could see the rotations of plantings and clear-cut, geometrical strips on the hillsides, what the poet Wordsworth called timber factories. The trees looked foxed and distressed at every stage, and the most recent plantings had evidently failed altogether – they stretched in lines on either side, like ten thousand dead Christmas trees, like a battlefield cemetery.
I remember now the forester telling us about the ancient forest, oak, thorn and birch, that once covered those hills. We turned up peat-stained, waterlogged roots and limbs in the drainage ditches between the ranks of saplings. Bog oak, he called it, spongy enough to take the imprint of a thumbnail. He whittled a little manikin with his jackknife and propped it on the dashboard of the bus. After two weeks, it had become light as balsa, hard as stone.
But driving away from that desolation my memory was of the crew bus passing Billie's house, and how I'd ducked my head and looked away each time, afraid of embarrassment, which was of course shame. The feeling stirred in me again.
When I came to the village, though, everything was changed. The house at the crossroads had new bay windows, dormers set into the remodelled roof, an imposing rock garden instead of the privet hedge, and an immaculate emerald lawn. The old stone houses had all been transformed, outbuildings converted to garages, garden statues on the lawns. It was the colours – the lawns and bright flower beds on every side – that shocked my eyes. At my brother's house, they saved the bathwater, to keep the rosebeds alive. It was the same everywhere. Rationing. But that little farming hamlet has become an outpost of privilege and denial.
I drove as far as the graveyard, and the stone-walled plot where they'd moved up the graves from the valley when the dam was built. The road stopped there, with a gate across it and a stile with a footpath sign. Beyond that, the asphalt had been torn up, the old valley road was a memory.
I take pride, even vanity, in my physical condition and appearance, but I had neither boots nor staff, and the old joints protested as I eased my way over the style. The path ahead was uneven, but the valley's edge and the reservoir were no more than a half mile further. I would pace myself.
And so I did, but it was so very hot out there. Mid-afternoon in October and it felt like July back on the plains. Or how July used to be. The irony of the drought here, while at home crops are late, or have failed, the arctic air hovering, yet the rivers in spate, their waters green-tinged from the shedding glaciers.
And then a rush of cool air all around me, and the valley ahead brimming over with mist, a white expanse between the terraced crags that was like snow at first sight, or like the clouds that you see from the window of an airplane. It was breathtaking. It was time travel. There have been three lakes in that place, three at least. The first when the ice sheets melted, thirty thousand years ago, and then, after ice had returned for ten thousand years, another melting, another lake, until the great moraine that contained it collapsed and the lake rushed away. Then another ten thousand years for forests to grow and a thousand more for them to be cleared and the farmers to settle, till the valley became the world of my childhood. And then, in my eighteenth year, they built the dam, just where the moraine had been, and the waters filled up again.
I sat down on the ground there and looked out on the mist, almost lapping at my feet. This was just where the road had dipped down to the derelict mill village. Below the mist, I knew, were the memories that had been waking and quickening in me through the afternoon. And I thought of Philip, my captain of industry, in his middle years, widowed, estranged from his children, a grandfather now, his voice crying out in my consulting room, a tremulous wail from that heavy frame – Where do the memories go, where do they live? He had been to psychiatrists, but neuroscience holds no answers for the spirit – it does not explain, it explains away. I helped him a little, I think, but he had become, like old Job, "a companion to owls." Perhaps Jeremy, my gentle, distraught ex-rabbi, could have answered his question.
The mist was stirring like a cauldron as I watched, tearing loose at the edges in long, raggy shreds. There were glimpses of what lay beneath, but no water, at least not at first. I began to make out the scoop of the valley's sides, with bands of white, like chalky tidelines. There was a boat dock, just to my right, with a peeling Sailing Club sign above it, and two boats on their sides below in a thicket of bracken. It must have been years since the water was at that level.
The mist was mesmeric. It seemed to condense towards the centre, with movement at its heart, like beating wings. And they were wings, a great bird hovering, black and white, as if it were the mist's distillation, and then the mist was gone. The valley lay open before me, the water so far below, and that bird plunging into it, then struggling aloft again, a fish gleaming in its talons. Osprey. They were extinct in this land when I lived here. Another wonder. And then I saw two tiny deer browsing at the second tideline. Roe deer – I had never seen one in the flesh. What should I make of this?
Loren Eiseley likened us to a slime mould, colonizing the planet, but I have come to see the cities, everywhere, as monsters, hypertrophic, insatiable, their tentacles drawing people and communities away from the land; the cities bloating, all interconnected and waiting unknowingly for the plague, the hive collapse, the entropic thunderbolt.
But as the countryside empties out, the wild things may repossess it, damaged though it is. Like the creatures that thrive in Chernobyl Forest, their life spans too short for the poisons to kill them, but evolving perhaps, all the same, adapting for a new Earth era in which we may have no part. King David in old age sang that the meek would inherit the land, and Jeremy told me once that "meek" was much better translated as "powerless," and the promise he said, with that high woman's laugh of his, was that power would be restored.
Everyone in my profession who deals with adolescents encounters the fantasy of an earth swept clean, a post-catastrophic Eden, a dream of leapfrogging the unthinkable, getting it over with and starting afresh. In my fiftieth year, there was Josie, brought in by her parents to my partner, Gillian, who passed her instead to me. The wonderful defiance of that fifteen-year-old, whose slashed jeans and spiked hair and black lipstick gave nothing away. "You just want to steal my secrets," she said, but she lay on my magic carpet and told me lie after brilliant lie until we both almost wept with laughter.
If there is actual human magic, it will be found in the solitudes of particular girls as they fend off the encroachment, within and without, of womanhood. Through communion with books, or horses, or the whisper of birch leaves in safe summer woods, it is ancestral, paleolithic and sadly, perhaps, ephemeral. It is forgotten, but truly it does not forget. It chooses, though few indeed are chosen these days. All I could be for Josie, all that she needed from me in those weekly visits, was an old man who understood. My parting gift was Grimm's' "Brother and Sister," the Rackham edition, telling her how I'd dreamed of her in that story, not telling her that I was the brother in those dreams, in my roe deer skin. I loved that child; knowing that I would remember what she would forget.
Excerpted from "Cli-fi"
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Table of Contents
The Climate of The Times: An Introduction to Canadian Cli-fi $$$ Bruce Meyer xi
My Atlantis $$$ Sean Virgo 1
Children of The Sea $$$ Rati Mehrotra 22
You Need Me At The River $$$ Linda Rogers 34
The Farmer'S Almanac $$$ Halli Villegas 48
The Heat Was Unbearable $$$ Frank Westcott 61
Animate $$$ Kate Story 77
Degas' Ballerinas Leslie Goodreid 90
Invasion $$$ Phil O'Dwyer 107
The Way of Water $$$ Nina Munteanu 117
Abdul $$$ Wendy Bone 131
Night Divers $$$ Lynn Huchinson Lee 153
Captured Carbon $$$ Geoffrey W. Cole 170
Report On The Outbreaks $$$ Peter Timmerman 189
After $$$ John Oughton 199
Weight of The World $$$ Holly Schofield 213
Lying In Bed Together $$$ Richard Van Camp 231
Reef $$$ George McWhirter 243
Afterword $$$ Dan Bloom 256
About The Authors $$$ 258
About The Editor $$$ 263