This is a picture of me with my grandfather (known herein as Pappa, which is Finnish for grandpa). The picture is one of many that my mother recently found in her rummaging through old boxes. There are many more of her father that she gave me, ones from when he was my age, from when he was a globetrotting geologist and prospector named Oliver.
Pappa and I are out in a muddy field 10 kilometres north of the middle of nowhere. There are birch poles stuck in the ground for some reason. There are pools of stagnant water. It’s the kind of water that would guarantee a crocodile attack if it wasn’t 10 degrees and Canada.
I’ve heard stories about this place. I guess my dad would go out there with Pappa sometimes (back when my parents were still married), and they would camp in the muck, pan for gold, and blow up beaver dams with dynamite (geologists get access to explosives, which is the trade-off to being a professional rock nerd).
Now before you start in on me about how environmentally blah blah blah blowing up beavers is, let me point out a few things. Firstly, the beavers started that fight. Just because it went sour for them is no reason to start taking the beavers’ side. Secondly, it was the early 80’s, a simpler time when people didn’t know that beavers felt pain and that napalm is a safer and faster alternative. And thirdly, if they didn’t take out those dams, this picture might have been one of me being savaged by a family of flat-tailed killers.
Pappa used to take me out to places like this a lot when I was a little. We would look at rock cuts in Sudbury and tromp through barren landscapes that are only fascinating to someone that can pick up a dirty piece of gravel and tell you how old it is, plus or minus a million years. He still tells me stories about being pinched by scorpions (“That’s why you turn your boots upside-down at night in the desert.”) and how his hearing isn’t great in one ear because he fired a revolver inside a cave (“The was a jaguar in there with me.”). He used to make me buckwheat pancakes with blackstrap molasses because “that’s what we ate in the bush. You can’t keep syrup out there; it goes bad.”
I have a set of tusks from a wild pig that was killed while he was prospecting in Zimbabwe (that one also wandered into a mine that he was using). I have pieces of petrified wood and chalcopyrite (fool’s gold) that he put in labelled plastic bags for me. I have three of his old machetes, tools that were actually used for making paths through jungles like they were meant to, not just for hanging on walls or pruning maple trees.
He’s moved back out to the middle of nowhere now, out in Elliot Lake. From what I hear, he’s happier there than he ever was living within earshot of Toronto. There are trees out there, and marshes, and brush. There are wild animals that he can tame (he has a knack for training chipmunks and deer to eat out of his hand). There are boulders he can assess.
I know now that there is something of him in me. He is the reason I feel compelled to walk alone in the woods. He is why I pick up interesting rocks and carry them with me, even though I can only tell you if they are igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary. He is why sometimes I need to climb trees, or look for animal tracks, or make fires from cattails with a flint and steel. He is why I long after being in wild places where you can hear nothing more than the songs of birds and the hum of bees on the wind.