True North

True North

Each June from the educational grist mills come thousands of sad young men who do not take to the great American religion of business, who dislike being sandwich men with signs on their backs that read, “My life is for sale to the highest bidder.” They are malcontents who do not know what they want, but they know they do not want to devote their lives to business success with the wholeheartedness necessary to achieve that aim. For if they do not desire business success, how can they work for it?

 

There are thousands of them and each has his battle to fight alone. Some of them are artists without an art—a most ludicrous spectacle. Some of them are spoiled children, a few are dilettantes. But most of them are very sincere. They have no aptitudes that can readily be converted into cash, or if they have they do not know it. They have glimpsed the futility of devoting one’s life to getting rich and at the same time seen the nobility of a lifetime given to some serious purpose that is pursued for its own sake, not money. If only they could find some work worth doing and incidentally make a living at it. They are not lazy; they would rather be ditchdiggers than salesmen. They do not think themselves any better than the millions who toil in the cities. They merely think it wrong that they should add their might to the overwhelming power of the system that rules us; that to make a living they should work for something in which they do not believe. They speak haltingly of “Truth” and “Beauty” and “Nature,” but soon learn that to speak thus is to be ridiculous or ridiculed, it matters not which.

 

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September 9, 1930. The Indian camp ground across the river is deserted. In the long grass are a few old sealskin shoes, some bits of cloth and wire, and around the tent pickets, heaps of crisp dry shavings that curled from the Indians’ crooked-knives as they fashioned canoe ribs, planking, snowshoe frames and paddles. Two or three worn-out kettles and some packages of clean-picked bones dangle on the bushes. Nearly a week ago the tribe broke camp and paddled away to that mysterious hunting ground back of Michikamau, where they are going to winter.

 

This is North West River, a Labrador village at the head of a deep 180-mile estuary, the Hamilton Inlet. On the wooded shore by the river mouth there is a Hudson’s Bay Company post, a Grenfell Mission hospital and school, and the neat, low houses of some twenty-five trapper families. The men are housebuilders, tinsmiths, fishermen, boat-builders, sailors, potato-farmers, and hunters all rolled into one. But most of all they are hunters. Soon they will be gone too, bound up the rivers “into the country” to the furring grounds hundreds of miles away. Until they come snowshoeing down the frozen rivers and lakes in January, the village, as though it were wartime, will be populated mostly by women and children and old men.

 

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October 18. We are getting the house fixed up very cosy. I have put a new wooden latch on the door and plugged up the open chinks where squirrels had the moss pulled out. Our little tin oven is very much worth the trouble of bringing it. On occasions we have baked rice pudding, baked stuffed duck and partridge, baked beans, and best of all, beautiful white or whole wheat “rose bread.” After soggy old bannock, yeast bread tastes like cake. We don’t have all those things at once. We go very light on our food, as we don’t know how it is going to last. When we have partridges, which are our mainstay that we never get tired of, we generally stew them with a little salt pork and a little rice. This makes a fine soup, a little of which we try to save for breakfast. The soup is also fine sauce for bread and saves on the butter or lard.

Whenever we have luck with partridges we eat all the meat we want and don’t eat much else. With a meat supper we often go without our tea as we would rather save it and the accompanying sugar for some time when we have no meat. We live like Indians in every way we can, for they know best. We never waste a crumb of food, for in the woods some natural superstition whispers, “If you waste today, the gods are watching and you will starve tomorrow.”

 

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November 7. Last night the river froze, all but a narrow channel down the middle. If the wind would ever cease and let the water quiet down, that would soon catch over too. The open lane is crowded with gray, amorphous masses of slob, slowly drifting, ready to jell. The water looks viscous, as though at any minute if the waves flattened out it might wrinkle once, and lo, be stiff.

 

John’s spare suit of woollen “insides” got caught in the ice last night. Among trappers there are two different schools of thought on the essential subject of washing underwear. It hardly assumes the importance of a schism, and never prevents a convert of one faction from drinking tea with an upholder of dubious doctrines. Nevertheless, the difference of opinion, with its consequent conduct, has a certain indefinable significance, and a true believer seldom goes over to the ritual of the opposing camp, preserving throughout his lifetime a naive loyalty to a soapless cause.

 

Briefly, some trappers prefer to turn their nether garments inside out and pull them down over the top of a bushy little tree. There, like inverted scarecrows, with limp arms and legs, they remain for a month or more in the sun, rain, frost, snow and wind. At the end of this time, when the other suit develops an irritating tendency to stiffen into a coat of armor, the quintuple processes of a natural laundry return the wash as white as snow and as soft as velvet. As with other laundries, there are sometimes casualties among the ranks of the buttons, for the jays, thinking they have blundered upon a civilized luxury, namely the cuttlefish of their pampered cousin the canary, have been known to pounce upon the lustrous pearls with the vigor of lumberjacks pouncing upon rum.

 

John is a faithful believer in the other school, whose members turn their backs upon such an uncouth display of intimacies and bury their grimey treasures beneath the waters of the river. There, in the shallow water they respectfully lay them, murmuring the words as though it were a chant, “Damn botheration anyway.” Rocks are piled on to mark the sacred spot and anchor the corpse. Then the devotees solemnly come away. The fish do not constitute the menace to buttons that the whiskey-jacks do in the Five Star Open Air Laundry. But there are dangers, as you shall see.

 

True North: A Journey into Unexplored Wilderness
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