“Why read The Wind in the Willows when you can be Ratty or Mole?” Kathleen Winter
My house is cluttered with books, and all the more so because it is summer. My two older kids have signed up for a reading challenge at the local library and every few days we’re needing to restock. I can’t quite keep pace with them myself, but I’m trying.
My own most recent find is Kathleen Winter’s memoir Boundless. It is an account of her 2010 journey on an icebreaker through the waters of the Northwest Passage – perhaps a fittingly escapist summer read. On the cover, the landscape was grey-scale gorgeous with ice flows and dark water under an elusive sky.
It was a landscape I want to move through.
Travel books draw me. I love stories of rambling and relocation, and like to think I come by it honestly. My mother is an immigrant so I grew up with the pull between places. The Spouse suffers likewise – his father left the Netherlands and his mother the Maritimes. Together, we’ve had a share of rambles, worn through hiking boots and are on our fifth city. And our bookcases are crowded. Perhaps they keep us anchored.
Stepping into Winter’s book, I recognized her desire to up and go and her enthusiasm for spontaneous adventure. From that familiar starting place, she creates a beautiful sense of place with cathedrals of ice, Icelandic poppies, turquoise waters, purple and gold mountains and white mist. It all sounds so entrancing. I’ve never been North – not arctic north, though living now in the UK, I am now further north than I was when I lived in Ottawa. North is a strange and complicated idea. Context is important.
Winter recognizes this and reflects of how we view the Canadian north through a romantic lens. She speaks of other layers of meaning – conquest, colonialism, military and political presence on the land, sovereignty, ignorance of northern people’s own understanding. Of the Northwest Passage itself, she insists that it is an idea rather than a place. It isn’t marked on map, rather it is the embodiment of European longing for north. But Winter suggests that the problem isn’t with the desire to see northern landscapes, but rather with the idea of passage. Of moving through. By the end of the book, she comes to the conclusion that all land is sacred and can teach us if we abandon ideas of passage and can be still.
I hear her wisdom with a divided heart. My pilgrim nature says yes. All places can be sacred, thin places where heaven and earth are close. It is attention rather than goal that is crucial. Pilgrimage never finishes at the end – it becomes a way of life and of seeing. So yes, all land is sacred.
But something else in me stumbles because Winter calls for a stillness that I can’t muster.
Maybe it is my transitory life or my growing kids or my itchy feet. I like to be on the move, as I suspect Winter does as well or she wouldn’t have accepted the out-of-the-blue invitation to take part in this arctic journey. While I have romantic notions of putting down roots and embedding myself and my family somewhere, I seem to be all too ready to keep one eye on the horizon for what might come next. The image of the road feeds me and gives me courage. How does that fit with the problematized idea of passage?
“I began to experience the connection I’d begun to know in the Arctic… subtle, unmistakable – audible only if I agreed to remain with the land instead of insisting on passing through.”
Maybe the difference sits here. Is it the same thing to be still and to be stationary? Is this splitting hairs? Maybe. Or maybe stillness can happen anywhere. Changes happen all around us and things shift. Maybe to remain with the land is to pay attention to circumstance rather than set the agenda. To focus and learn rather than plot a course through to the next step. Maybe there is a faithfulness there, even for those with pilgrim boots.