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Historical gifts

John and I were able to take a trip this spring, just the two of us, to the UK. Our children stayed home with their grandmothers – one week with John’s mom, and one with mine. Couple time affirmed we are in our marriage because we like each other; it was also a joy for the boys to spend time connecting with their grandparents.

John and I wandered the streets of London, visited a little town in Scotland where friends live, and spent the last week in Dublin listening to friendly strangers tell stories. To two Vancouver city-dwellers, the experience of walking through an urban landscape rich with human history was a revealing and exciting change. Every street and building came with narrative, and that narrative created a special magic; the possibility of surprise, of mystery, of stumbling headlong into a ongoing story a thousand years old.

Of course, while traveling, you compare to home. In looking at the stone age stone circles and burial mounds of England, I could see an early tradition of building permanent human structures. Our own human history in British Columbia lives with the First Nations and Indigenous peoples who had different cultural ideals: with intention, they choose monuments like totem poles and house posts that eventually end their life cycles by rejoining the earth. People were here, but it seemed like they didn’t choose to write their presence into the land. Or at least not in the same way.

One story got me thinking about this differently. We came to Ferryhill, outside of Durham on the east coast of England, and learned it was named for the man who killed the last wild boar. We talked about that story with our Scottish friends, and learned there are also no more bears or wolves in the British woods.  I was overcome with a flood of affection for our part of the world, where bears and humans try to negotiate garbage day on the North Shore.

Our prehistory is well preserved. It is just more obviously preserved in our wilderness,Mama Bear and Cubs rather than in our cities and structures. The British Isles have Stonehenge and Stirling Castle – we have lynx. The First Nations who have been on this land thousands of years have an oral tradition that come with this wild history that we can use as an authority, like a National Trust plaque beside a historical site. These are stories of this continent’s wild, and of human spaces in it. But these stories are living – we are contained in this history.

I came home feeling gifted with new perspective on community; on how humans help each other. Sometimes, I want to know exactly what path to walk, hoping  a thousand women and men before me have walked it and cleared the bramble – and maybe the bears. There’s safety in numbers and in knowing, and sometimes we need a knowing tribe.  But there is also such strength in knowing that we can live with the mama bear who comes out of the mountains and demands to be negotiated with. There is such freedom in not being afraid that the wild may sometimes upset our ordered lives: that we can live in the wild and learn from it, whether it be the environment in which we live, or the wild within our hearts.

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  • Anne Irwin April 11, 2014, 3:16 pm

    What a beautiful essay! It made me long for the UK where I spent such rewarding years and at the same time appreciate the wilderness in which I live now. Thank you, Arwen, for your insight and beautiful language.