Monday, April 30, 2012

The Sleeping Island

Just when you get used to something, someone pulled the rug out from under you.  Blooger has a "new look."  Let's see what new learning curve is needed to get back on board.

"The Sleeping Island: The Story of One Man's Travels in the Great Barren Lands of the Canadian North"  by P. G. Downes (Pub 1943 by Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, 296pp., B&W photographs.)

While I wasn't so keen on the last book, this one is a must-read.  P.G. Downes tells a story as exciting and compelling as Jack London; only this is not a novel.  It is a truth so clearly told that his presentation of life in the far North is only possible through his two great skills: that of an exceptional writer, and by his great gift in communicating to a broad spectrum of listeners or readers, a talent undoubtedly acquired through his years of teaching.  The book tells what it takes to live,and more to the point, what it takes to survive above 60-degrees North.  He takes you in his canoe and points out everything you'd like to know about the land's history, its creation, the peoples that endeavor to survive its challenges, and how every trip is indeed an expedition.  He tells about the wildlife that call the Barrens home, and how closely man and animal are linked in this land.

There is much to understand about the relationships of the Eskimos and various Indian tribes and how they relate to the whites who have entered their lands. Almost regardless of the book, the history, or the tale, much has changed since "long, long ago before any white man and any evil came to this country."  This is unfortunately the legacy that seems universal, and has been stereotypically spread around the world. Our only saving grace in the North is that all Indian nations seem to view the Eskimo in lower regard than they do the whites.  In two different regions, two different tribes gave shockingly similar opinions of the white man.  He is selfish.  He has the mind and temper of a small child, and needs to be humored.  He loses his temper, shouts and roars, "a habit unthinkable in a grown man, but pardonable and characteristic in children."  That's a wonderful legacy to leave behind, and yet we go into their cultures so convinced that we know best and that we need to be in their midst to save them from themselves.

I learned a lot from this book, and I know you will too.  One small piece of trivia I found interesting was the source of the expression about someone being "bushed" as opposed to just being tired.  The Barrens are referred to as bush country.  Trees are sparce, those that exist are stunted, and little else exists but permafrost, sand, stone, gravel, and bush.  Thus the pilots that have done most to open the country for commerce are called bush pilots.  To survive, the daily activity level must be frenetic through every waking hour.  There is no let up, no resting.  It is a race against the coming winter, a rapid tempo of checking goods, procuring supplies and provisions, gathering wood, making repairs, and improvising for what is missing or unavailable.  The pace of preparing to survive the next winter will wear them down until it affects not just their physical being, but their state of mind.  They become hollow ghosts of themselves.  Those around them agree that "they've become bushed," a condition resulting from their battle with their environment. 

You will love this book.  Cheers, jim

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