Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Shekinah Journal #1

Shekinah Autumn
September 23, 2008, 7:00 a.m.

It’s a Shekinah morning. There’s some time yet before the staff at the Retreat Centre meet in the office below our apartment to set priorities for the day. Time to sit on the couch with my laptop and reflect for an hour. Time to pause at the commas and periods and scan the high riverbank opposite with its clumps of yellow poplar, red cranberry bushes and rusty chokecherry shrubs. Autumn is the most magnificent time of year here, colour-wise.

I’ve learned in the last weeks that I love nature, but at a distance more than up close. As we drove the sharp bend before descending into Shekinah late last night, two sleek whitetail deer streaked through the wash of our headlights, close enough for us to see their frightened eyes, far enough away for me to take evasive action. Cars and deer colliding on the roads is a regular occurrence around here.

And then there are the peskiest children of Mother Nature: beaver, squirrels, chipmunks and mice. Along the banks of a ravine that runs behind our apartment, the beaver have found a haven. A spring-fed stream winds its way down the gully to spill itself into the North Saskatchewan, a perfect setup for beaver, who will build dams across this stream as often as we can break them apart (I have yet to be involved in this), denuding the ravine of already-sparse poplar growth.

Yesterday we cleaned out a garage of accumulated bikes and bike parts, camping gear, old records in boxes and the mountains of odds and ends that tend to accumulate in garage-like places where order is not immediately of the essence. And we cleaned up mouse shit. I hate mouse leavings with a passion. But here at Shekinah, there will always be mice; the appropriate response to them, I guess, would be to admit that it is we who are encroaching on their territory, not the other way ‘round. Until that consciousness sets in, however, I will set traps for them. Not the other way ‘round.

The bushes around the retreat centre are tangles of beaver-cut stumps, fallen poplar and the berry and cherry shrubs that thrive on the banks of the Saskatchewan. At this time of year, the high bush cranberries are overripe, and as they burst and give up their juices to the wind, they exude an aroma that you wouldn’t want to harvest as a household fragrance. It’s not skunk, but it suggests skunk. I understand now why my mother called these Schtinkberren. Chokecherries are at their best now though, and I strip a handful of them from a shrub every time I walk down to the Timberlodge, suck off the meat and spit stones like a baseball coach (or a Rhinefeld Mennonite) spits sunflower seed shells. I’m told the chokecherry is a great herbal remedy for, well, whatever ails ya.

Poets and artists of the Romantic Period introduced us to the idea that the natural world isn’t a dirty, hostile place that one does best to avoid. Oh, there’s obviously danger out there; if the poison oak don’t get you, a black bear might. On the other hand, traditional aboriginal spirituality stresses our unity with the natural world, and since Darwin explained to us that we humans are intricately bound up with all living matter on earth, we are more prone to see our connectedness to nature. Not like the pre-enlightenment folk, who believed that the night air carried a foulness that caused illness and death, and that evil spirits roamed the midnight woods.
Life for us now is much quieter than it was in town. Here at Shekinah, a cloudy night renders our surroundings so dark that even following the gravel road down to the meadows is a challenge. The onset of evening darkness is like a signal to all of nature to hush; sound seems to “leave the building” along with the light.

I don’t think I’ll ever master the art of being one with the earth. I curse when a bramble catches my sleeve, I hold a mouse trap at arms length when called upon to dispose of its contents.
High on the bank above us, Shekinah offers a house called “The Hermitage,” a primitive log structure characterized more by what it hasn’t got than what it has. It doesn’t have a bathroom, running water, electricity, gas, and so, of course, lacks pretty much all of the amenities and gadgetry that we associate with comfortable living. Agnes and I helped Lorne clean it yesterday.

Agnes said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to spend a night in this place!”

I said, after noting the rough walls, the crude wood stove, the flies and mouse droppings, “There’s nothing wrong with this place that a can of gasoline and a match wouldn’t fix!”

And yet, The Hermitage is booked as much as any facility on the premises. There are people who want to experience the primitive life, who want to be so close to nature that it pokes it’s fingers through the windows beside their bed as they lie there, gazing at the stars through poplar boughs.

Our apartment, by contrast, has all the good stuff we’ve decided we need. And it manages to allow us a good look at nature’s magnificence through big picture windows while keeping most of that nature outside . . . where it belongs.

There are two ways to enjoy nature: theoretically, and at an appropriate distance.

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