Saturday, August 01, 2015

Journey of the Hathlo

Where to begin? My friend Adrian Barnes, author of Nod ([update:] and Satan à la Mode!) had some sound advice for procrastinating writers (like me) who find elaborate excuses not to write; who, when faced with the greatest story ideas, bury themselves in tangential projects. He said the thing to do if you want to write a novel is to stop waiting for the conditions to be perfect and just start writing. I have no idea how far this will go, but I think I have waited long enough and need to start putting some of my story ideas down on (virtual) paper if only to show an attempt. Amongst the hundreds of story ideas that have occurred to me (as they do anyone with an imagination) I have hatched four big schemes for novels with the potential for more than a nodding interest by myself and an imagined audience. None of them has ever proceeded past an elaborate concept phase, excepting perhaps the "Journey of the Hathlo" as evidenced by a box in my basement filled with notebooks, sketches, jottings, and maps. One of the other ideas for a novel has a narrative that jumps between the near-present logging camps and fishing boats and late 18th Century British Columbia (sea otter trade, Nootka Crisis). A third idea was about a near-future society where the ability to scan thoughts through technology (mind-reading) becomes commonplace and, of course, disastrous for the fundamental unwritten rules of society and the construction of the self. The fourth idea was about differing cultural portrayals (and purposes) of the afterlife from a geographer's perspective. So there it is, an unrealized quadruple threat: fantasy, historical fiction, sci-fi, and non-fiction.

Stories, like plans, are nearly perfect before they are written -- flaws and failure have not been demonstrated, plot and character holes are only temporary abstractions, and the possibilities are endless. They can be pitched in short form without having conclusions in place, and can change direction at the whim of the storyteller. However, the longer one waits, the longer one risks that death will precede publication, or, more practically, that the basic story idea, premise, names, context, title will be used by another. While originality is not always the greatest concern of an author, it is an important part of my procrastination cycle. One of my story ideas involves the journey and saga of a people across ice age landscapes to reach a new home. Should I be staking a claim to the internet address It is troubling to consider (especially in light of Adrian's advice), that I have probably spent more time thinking about domain registry than I have actually writing this story that has been swirling around me for over twenty years. I have also spent more time pouring over maps, studying glacial landscapes (in particular, sea level change and post-glacial ecology), and drawing my own maps than I have in writing, at least in a form that can be shared with others.

The origin of this story goes back a long way for me, perhaps in broad terms to my close reading of the works of Tolkien as a youngster, but more specifically to a period in the early 1990s when I began to think about what a mythology for British Columbia might look like, or more accurately what it would sound like. A number of events and thought experiments coalesced during that time, some of which had been building (as they do in all stories) from a rootmass of older self-moderated tales and memories. The machinery of the story as I see it today took on form as a result of three peculiar events -- a vision, a dream, and the lingering impressions of a daytrip. There were other events that fed this story, but these three stand out to me as significant.

1. The Vision
As I recall it now, I drove up alone in the failing light of a fall night in 1992 to a friend's rural property south of Chilliwack in the Ryder Lake area. After letting myself in the gate and parking my truck, I walked across the property past the fields and forest with my sleeping bag and a pillow to a one-room cabin tucked on a wooded knoll, a place I helped build. To the south lay the Chilliwack River Valley, known by a low rumble coming up from far below as I approach the knoll. The sound of a youthful river is like a rushing wind or rolling thunder, but comes mainly from rocks dragging, shifting and tumbling along the river bed. Rising beyond the Chilliwack River are the first mountains of the Skagit Range, the Canadian part of the Cascades. Somewhere up on the flanks of Church Mountain, I saw a light, perhaps from a dirt bike or 4x4, a spark against the canopy of dark forest and night sky. Maybe this was some late-evening adventurer looking for the way down or some dirt road campers looking to settle in for the night.  In my mind's eye, the lights multiplied, and came from many fires or torches. The river's rumble became the low notes of a great song, and the fires began to move downslope. It was a clan of warriors and families of warriors, the Hathlo, descending the mountain with joy and terror. They had awoken from some great sleep and were roaring towards the coast, as if they had waited a thousand years to begin their song and complete some quest. In my jottings and drafts this later became a great thawing set toward the end of the last Ice Age, and behind the singing warriors came a great flood of meltwater that would destroy much of the forest along with their enemies.

2. The Dream
This strange night occurred in late Spring, 1994, while camping in the Kootenays. I was tenting along on the edge of lake at a Forest Service Rec Site (was it Mabel Lake?), most of the way through a solitary road trip, and on that particular night I was having a hard time getting to sleep. I suppose I was at a turning point on the journey, no longer rapt by the lakes and streams, the forest and mountains, the towns and sites of interest.  On my mind was the letting go of the school year, my last in at the University of BC, and coming to terms with the Summer work ahead and the decisions I would have to make about the Fall. Should I aim for more work with the forest consultant firm, or was it time to put in that application to teacher training? That night, when I finally left for the Land of Nod, I had a dream that haunts me to this day. The scene, emerging slowly and inconsistently as they sometimes do in dreams, was set mostly around a campfire in a dense wood, near to a stream but very dark save the the bright flames in the pit and the stars above. There were a few people around the fire, sometimes they were friends but at parts of the dream they became strangers; for some moments I noticed that I was alone. There was music. It came from our voices, and from a guitar someone produced, and from echoes in the forest that returned our song in the form of new instruments. At some point we realized the music was not coming from us anymore but from another guest at the fire, an enormous Sasquatch. The music had the complexity of a symphony, and a story unfolded about the last 100,000 years of the Pacific Northwest, each part about a different time and location. I've come to understand this to mean that each movement dwelt on an Age of the late Pleistocene and Holocene Epochs, moving progressively south along the coastal regions of Alaska, BC, and Washington State. If there were words for the music, I'm not sure they were audible; perhaps the Sasquatch spoke to us directly beyond the song, but there was definitely a narrative woven through the entire piece. Sasquatch strummed away at his guitar and hummed or did something like singing, and we came to understand the untold tale of the land as witnessed by a vanished people and a collective of Sasquatches, of whom this one was likely the last. As so often happens in my dreams, the details turned towards each other, a proliferation of resemblances, and were known as much by what I didn't remember as what I did. When I woke, or rather when I was aware that what I was experiencing belonged more to my conscious reality than something deeper beneath, a great sadness came over me. I wept from the beauty of the song, and also the realization that the deeper themes, story, and meaning of the song was slipping away from me and could only be experienced once. Over the years I have built up the story of the Hathlo around the bare fragments of that song that remain. More importantly, at times when I am present and connected to, I feel that I am singing that song still,  adding some small part to the ongoing whole, making some small impression on the Holocene. If this all sounds too serious, just google image search sasquatch playing guitar and things will actually seem quite silly.

3. The Daytrip
This memory of a quick trip up Knight Inlet and back has stuck in my head for years. It was less about advancing the stories in my head and more about the physical and emotional tones that would influence my understanding of setting. The sights, sounds, and smells of this day did more to affect my ongoing vision of a story taking place than the thousands of other experiences I have had in the wilderness. I need some time to put this day in perspective, and will come back to this on a later date. I think the story of that day might be a nice way to remember some of the time I spent doing forestry work, even if it was a one-off along the BC Coast compared to the years I spent in the interior of BC and Northern Alberta as an ecosystem geographer.

So, there it is, either a commitment to get some of my stories down in print, or perhaps an elaborate scheme for further procrastination. Jotting the ideas here for my unknown audience (I'm not sure I really blog for anyone but myself, anyways) feels pretty good, though. It reminds me that stories can be be beautiful (and yes, perfect) even when incomplete and unrecorded.  Storytelling is something we do, something that fashions our individual and collective identity, even when the process is internal. If I remember my Daniel Dennett correctly, consciousness itself can be understood as a narrative centre of gravity; the stories we tell ourselves about our own experience that eventually wear "identity paths" in our brains.