Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner



David Muench's National Parks





 


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There is a grandness about entering a country by sea.  Even if the sea is simply a strait crossed in an hour from the country you are leaving.  Even if the ship carrying you is only a huge ferry on which there is nothing elegant.  Even if you get seasick just by looking at water.

But coming into Canada via Victoria, one of the loveliest cities on earth, on a clear, soft summer day goes beyond grand.  There are flowers everywhere, romantic hansom cabs lining the streets, human-scale buildings, green parks.  The word “civilized” makes sense.

I love civilization.  It seems so rare.

Cities rife with ever bigger, higher buildings have tremendous energy, but they are too competitive to be civilized.  Suburbs and the sprawl they spawn only insulate people from one another, from community, from nature, even from the raw energy of big cities.    

Civilization does not depend on place.  Once, backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range in rain that began before dawn, my path descended into a meadow where three horses grazed. Beyond the horses, near the edge of forest, a woman wearing a skirt sat comfortably on a log next to a campfire. A man in buckskins standing near the horses waved at me.  I waved back.  He waved again, clearly signaling me over. “Would you like a hot drink?” the woman asked, when I reached their fire.  No one could have offered more.  My stove had broken, and unable to start a fire in the morning’s wetness, I had had nothing warm since the night before. “An old mountain man grog,” the man said.  He told me it was made of bark or leaves or twigs -- I never quite got the ingredients. But it was the mountain man time the man was living.  It meant he got to wear buckskins and knew how to build a fire when everything was wet. The grog tasted ghastly, but I swallowed every warm drop, finding the moment intensely civilized. 

Victoria spread before us as the ferry docked.  We could see it as David drove the truck out of the hold onto the dock, see it as Canadian Customs waved us into one of the spots reserved for those about to be investigated. 

Why us?  We don’t look like smugglers.  Any kind.  Guns.  Dope.  Illegal aliens.  What else aren’t you supposed to bring in?  Apricots, it said on a sign on the ferry.  Bear spray.  I suppose we could look like the sort of people who might bring in an apricot. 

Years ago, coming across the Canadian border into Montana, I did a stupid thing. Well before 9/11, during that long, erstwhile friendly history of our two countries when a driver’s license got you across the border, I had driven to Waterton National Park  with a friend and her baby.  In Waterton Townsite,  I bought the baby a toy penguin.  When we were asked on our return if we had anything to declare, I said, “only a penguin.”

“A penguin?” the customs agent asked, looking triumphant at finding a criminal.    

“It’s a stuffed toy.  For the baby,.” I said, wondering about a customs agent who thought there were penguins in Canada.

“We need to look at the car.  Please step out,” he ordered. 

That meant my friend had to get all her baby paraphernalia together, and get the baby out of his car seat and put him in his stroller, which made him wake up and cry, while the customs agent, and several he called over to aid in the great penguin search of the north, practically tore apart the car looking for more penguins.  He seemed unimpressed by the one I bought, sensing I was hiding the real penguins.      

He couldn’t find any.  Or anything else.  They had to let us go.      

But this time I hadn’t done anything.  I’d learned what not to say.  (Never say you have a penguin.)  After David unlocked the camper door for them, we were told to stand at the front of the truck while two agents went through our pile of  jackets.  We could not see them when they entered the camper.  Were they going through cupboards?  Through luggage lying on the camper bed?  Through hiking packs, photography cases, book bags?  The man who had signaled us over came out of the back while his partner continued searching.  Thank god there were no penguins back there.  (Although there was forgotten bear spray in my rucksack they did not find.) 

The only other vehicle pulled over was a vintage VW camper, with an uncomfortable looking old hippie standing beside it.  He was sweating.  “Did you pull us over because of the camper?” I asked the agent. “Or because we have New Mexico plates?”  I could imagine they would think that if we had a camper, and came from that close to Mexico, we must be transporting illegals.  Or drugs.  Or guns for people running drugs in Canada.  Or penguins. 

“Just random,” the agent answered.

Right.

In Victoria's Butchart GardensVictoria building codes do not allow buildings over a certain height.  The idea is that 19th century buildings should not sink into the shadows of power, but also that nothing block views of the Pacific from anywhere in town.   Is it a revolutionary thought to consider that our access to nature matters?  Even a view of nature, of the power of oceans, when you have spent an entire day dealing with insurance fraud, or rude customers, or galleries rejecting your work allows you to breathe deeper.  We are civilized by the fact of wildness.  We breathe through daily routines because we see the ocean or the mountain or the open green space of a city park.  Canada has its share of environmental problems, but the city of Victoria has its own soul.    

We drove directly to the Royal British Columbia Museum, a handsome, and very modern building set between the historic Empress Hotel and the Legislature buildings and not far from the ferry terminal. The featured visiting exhibit was a stunningly mounted collection of 300 artifacts from the British Museum. Spanning thousands of years of global cultural evolution, its intent was to show us where we came from and what we have become.  But what we could really see, is how intrinsic art is to the human soul.

A permanent exhibit, the First Peoples Gallery presents views of native culture before and after the arrival of Europeans.  Many objects in the gallery were made for the gallery, but there are also pieces removed from the people who made them in those days when the dominant society sought to dismantle a culture they regarded as primitive and heathen.   

The exhibits present First Nations’ interpretation of the things that have always been  part of their lives.  I was drawn to a display of masks in a darkened case in a dark room.  As light falls on each mask separately, we are told the story the mask carries. The mask recedes into darkness, the next is lit.  What we hear is the memory of meaning.  What we see is the immediacy of story. 

On each of  two visits to the museum, I sat before the masks a long time, but it could never be long enough.  The stories do not let me go.  It is the stories that make this land, these people whose land this is.  Overlaid on the stories is the Anglo beauty of Victoria.  But in front of the exhibit, only story exists.

Ruth Rudner at the Emily Carr HouseWe left the museum to walk the few blocks to the house of Emily Carr, the painter/writer  who railed against her own society’s attempted destruction of First Nation culture.  Her Victorian house is now a little museum honoring her.  The rooms filled with things she would have used are a million miles from the masks a few blocks down the street.  Yet, in a shed is a little caravan of the sort that enabled her to stay in wild places to paint, a kind of transition-domicile between her own culture and the world she loved. 

“There’s tea and lemonade on the porch,” the woman at the museum desk said to us.  “Please help yourself.  And have some cookies.” We drank lemonade in the garden. 

How simple civilization is!

Copyright © 2009 Ruth Rudner