During the air raid
Guided by tan lords
And fat cupids
Made their way
Into pit mines
To beg boeuf
Voicing their vows
Skidding on jewels
Tugged molting asps
And shorn lynx
Under the roar of jets
Without landing gear
A most curious poem. A thing repeated for the past one hundred years. Evocative of man's autistic jousting with the real power. A man told me once that he had never seen a U-Haul parked at a funeral by the open grave. He was right but then again he had never been in Pharaoh's Egypt or at the sending off of a Viking Chieftain. He had walked the battlefield of Culloden, however and that counted in my books until I learned that the heads of many of the famous Scottish clans were actually avaricious immigrants from Brittany. He guided me on the stock market until I realized that there were two ways in which to play that game. You may either let a stranger lose your money and take the blame or you may throw it away yourself and explain it to your wife.
Contrary to some beliefs, no individual wins regardless of how many toys they accumulate. Their families may prosper for a season or two however. Not permanently. This is not to say that each individual may not have enough. Everyone may have enough and much blood has been spilled in trying to convince large groups of people that this is not so. The reality is not answerable to man and the artificial shortages are entirely man's doing. The astute reader or listener will likely wish to differ at this juncture and point out a million naturally caused catastrophes; acts of God, as it were, which refute the statement I just made. What about the Deadliest Catch or The Angry Planet, they might ask.
My answer to them would be one word. Borders. Frontiers, if you will. Sometimes you have to cross them, sometimes you shouldn't but always they are man made. The growing pile of garbage on the slopes of Mt. Everest should quell the argument that geography itself is a barrier to humankind. At least as long as the Sherpa population is willing to haul the gear. One legged men have run across continents, women have swum the Atlantic, and the emotionally crippled, morally bankrupt and intellectually challenged have steered our ships of state into shoal after shoal.
Borders and rules are inherent in our species. To many aboriginal peoples, a person's border or comfort zone, is a circular affair that travels with them as they move through the landscape that belongs to none. That is to say they are sovereign within this small dynamic boundary from which they take enough and no more. It must be borne in mind that all humans at one time would have been described as aboriginals.
Of course geography lent itself to the formation of early borders for the larger groups of humans. Temporarily. Our first look at an ocean beach is a daunting sight to any of us yet within a day we are speculating on what is across the water. It is no different where the forest peters out into desert or muskeg into tundra or river valley to canyon walls. The creation, formation, alteration, maintenance, defense and destruction of these frontiers actually takes place inside of us before manifesting on the ground.
It is logical and easy to follow along much of man's history in regards to the aforementioned human tendency to divide the world at large into manageable chunks of real estate. Where it becomes interesting, confusing and downright evil, is when large groups allow themselves to be subjected to borders imposed on them by greedy men. There are many reasons why people allow themselves to be penned up and insulated. These reasons range from fear (real or imagined) to addiction, convenience to hope. Like the song says, “You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” In my life I have experienced all of these scenarios at borders and I am sure there will be more to come.
When I was in my early twenties and courting my second wife I had a Scandinavian friend who liked to go camping. He had just married an ethnic Chinese Indonesian woman and my fiancee was a Chinese gal. He liked my gal, I liked his gal and he and I liked each other. My gal liked him, his gal liked me but his gal had a deep abiding dislike for my gal. This made for a very complicated set of dynamics around the campfire.
One time he asked me to meet him at Ross Lake which straddles the US-Canada border. My fiancee and I stayed in the back of my Toyota which I had camperized and the Scandonesian couple stayed in a tent. After we got our fire set up and had unpacked, my friend and I roamed around the woods and along the lake shore while the girls ignored each other in camp. We noticed a very large tree snagged onto the shore with forty feet extending into deep water. It was wide enough for a man to lie athwart without getting his feet wet. We scampered up and down it before returning to camp.
When we got back, my gal wanted to go swimming, which meant she wanted to wear her bathing suit and dip her toes. While his gal had a nap, we three trundled off to the shore. We showed her the massive log and she waded across and climbed aboard. We boys swam out and began to rock it until it was free of the mud. Before we realized that the lake had a strong outflow current to the South we were in its grip and heading for the invisible border.
We laughed like boys half our age and started to speculate on how we could steer the thing. All the while my gal sun-tanned high and dry. Presently, a small motor boat presented itself alongside. Its pilot was a young man about our same age and he had on a US Border Patrol uniform. His expression was that of an alley cat confronting a tom turkey.
“Ahoy,” we laughed.
“Hi folks. I have to inform you that you are rapidly approaching the United States. What is your citizenship?”
“I'm a Canadian from Texas with a Swedish-American Grandpa, a Canadian father, a German-Canadian Grandpa, a Welsh-Irish-Canadian Grandma, a German-Welsh-American-Cherokee Grandma and an American Mum. She is a Chinese Canadian and my buddy is a Danish Canadian. How about you?”
“You are Canadians all?”
“I am going to have to ask you folks to turn back, you will be entering the country illegally if you hold to your present course.”
The current was picking up and indeed the fellow had to gun his outboard to keep alongside us. My gal was wide awake now and very amused. My friend was speaking in Danish and lucky for us the guard wasn't understanding him. I thought about the many fish and birds who were contravening the law at that very moment. I thought about the Vikings who had tied ropes to the London Bridge and pulled the whole damn affair into the Thames before heading off to an island in the Seine for camping while the Gauls hurled verbal abuse and ineffective arrows.
Presently I spoke over the outboard thrum, “This thing is seriously too big to maneuver. All we have is our hands to paddle with. It would be like trying to give a blue whale a massage.”
“That's your problem sir. I guess you'll have to swim.”
I pointed out that my fiance couldn't swim well and that we were in deep cold water very far from shore. I figured he would be a cowboy and offer to tow the tree to shore or at least give the girl a ride home. I was wrong. He angrily said that he would be back shortly and turned turtle. We watched him cross the imaginary line. I didn't want to see the cavalry.
I got my friend to get in the water with me and we both kicked like hell while pushing the water logged hulk side wise and used the wake from the pathetic small craft as a helping hand. In a strenuous diagonal tack, we managed to get in close enough to a projection of land for the lady to make a relatively safe transit to the muddy weed-clogged bank. I was proud of her and I could tell she was enjoying the adrenaline to a degree.
We bushwhacked back to camp as the timber turned like a ship on its anchor chain, heavy end first; found deep water and joined the current which would carry it to the coming posse. We peered through the rain forest to watch it go. We were all surprised to see how far we had traveled. At camp, we recounted the tale to my friend's wife and she decided she would like to go for a wee hike as well.
My gal stayed by the fire and off went the new set of three. This time we headed in an opposite direction to our earlier exploits and soon were deep in the florescent mosses and raven choruses that decorate those woods. After a time I heard my friend, who was in the lead cease his singing of Donegal Danny and yell for us to catch him up.
The gal and I ran to see. There, about twenty yards off the barely discernible trail was a pile of soccer ball sized boulders. It was about seven feet long, three feet wide and two feet high. It was obviously constructed by human hands and perfectly camouflaged by leaf litter, branches and moss. The stones were lichen covered which meant that they had been placed there a mighty long time ago. By the time the gal and I stood near it, my friend had cleared the outline like a manic archaeologist.
“It's a grave,” we said in unison.
Me and the lady backed up a step and stood like you see people doing at funerals. My friend leaped on top of the cairn like a pirate and began tugging at a rock. After the initial shock that this action had on us two onlookers we turned on him as one and made it very clear that no graves would be desecrated that day, marked or otherwise. He looked at us like we were crazy but he stopped when he saw how serious we both were. We speculated about who it could be, how old it was and if the person had been murdered or had died naturally on the walk back to the camp.
Once I was in the French Pyrenees. I was eventually going to Africa via Spain and had tarried a bit in the Basque Country. It intrigued me for these people had their own language neither French nor Spanish and inhabited a region whose borders had changed with every conquest, reconquest and the good or ill fortunes of the peoples who surrounded them. They were mountain people like the first Cherokee were. They also had their own ideas about other people's borders and had learned how to exploit this nonsense of control to their own advantage. They were consummate smugglers.
Late one afternoon, I came to a dusty mountain town. From the porch of an inn I could see the French mountains whose southern slopes were claimed by Spain. I planned to walk over them. I had a passport but I wanted to just walk over them like a natural man. I could present my papeles on the other side I reckoned, if push came to shove.
I was the only traveler in the expansive rustic bar. There was a stone fireplace and I warmed my backside while I enjoyed a beer. The proprietor looked like a cross between Stromboli and Charles Bronson. He only spoke in curt bursts of just enough speech to answer a query and this with no trace of emotion save for an undertone of mistrust and annoyance. He had a magnificent German Shepherd dog.
I gestured to the brute which sat beside the bar and it loped over to my position by the fire. I figured I'd talk to it if the man didn't want to chat. I reached slowly palm down for the dog to sniff my hand. Before the animal could do this, he was summoned with a word I couldn't understand other than by its context and its consequences. The wolf-like creature shot across the empty space in a fraction of a second and heeled hard against the man's side.
The man said in a voice that carried more warning than the rattle of a Diamondback, “Don't touch my dog.”
Outside I smoked while gazing at the mountains and decided it prudent to take the conventional route into Spain. Even today, I know this was the correct choice. The dog man's people had been crisscrossing those hills since before they had been named. They weren't the problem. I was. No one knew who or what I was and there was no time for me to establish my credentials in the old way.
Hold, fold, walk or run. We cannot escape dealing with borders both spiritual and temporal. The important ones lie within and are reflected on the outside by those we encounter. Frontiers can also be edifying. A game, for example, is constructed of pieces (willing people) allowed a limited set of possible actions (man-made laws) confined by a finite set of rules (borders) competing to achieve a predetermined goal (death). We could be discussing a good game of chess or the average modern person's life story. I played a game of Scrabble with my wife tonight. The poem at the beginning of this essay was constructed from the words on the board at the end of our game.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.