Monday, December 27, 2021

Embracing Grey

I think of those days beginning five or six months ago as the "before times."  No, I'm not referring to one of the myriad phases of the pandemic, which seems to give us a glimpse of "afterwards" or "new normal" just as it ramps up its attacks.  I'm thinking of British Columbia.  Before the drought.  Before the wildfires.  Before even more clear-cutting. Before torrential rains that sent mudslides down mountains faster than a sprinter can run.  Before Lytton, B.C. went up in flames, seemingly in spontaneous combustion. Before the heat domes that killed nearly 600 people, the most that have died of weather in Canadian history.  In fact, more people die of heat worldwide than from hurricanes or earthquakes.  

Even in Saskatchewan we felt B.C.'s plight.  The sun at end of day was as coppery-pink and hard-edged as a penny.  There was smoke in the air.  And the heat!  We had, if memory serves, three long hot spells, the second liberally flavoured with humidity. We don’t have AC, though our house sits among trees which transpire cooler air, allowing us to cool off at night with our ingenious use of fans.  The secret, my father taught me, is to have at least one fan blowing out and to open windows only in the rooms you want to cool. We put that fan in an upstairs bedroom and augmented it with a second fan on the ground floor blowing in.  It worked surprisingly well. But one night toward the end of a week of heat, the power went out just as we might have been turning the fans on, so we sat reading by flashlight near windows that might exhale a wisp of breeze. Book in one hand, flashlight in the other, I lacked a third hand to wave one of the tourist fan party favours kicking around the house.  I felt trapped in humid air and helplessness. My distress was more psychological than physical as I asked myself the most banal and useless question:  how long can I stand this?  It’s much more sensible to ask if you can stand this right now. 

In part, I was experiencing solastalgia:  the grief one feels when one's natural environment has changed dramatically, perhaps irreparably.  It's not hard to imagine that a lot of solastalgia is drifting around the flooded parts of B.C. as people look at their surroundings and at their lives, which have been either destroyed or completely transformed. The only silver lining, it seemed to me, was that the torrential rains came shortly after COP 26, which accomplished some things but wimped out on others.  In British Columbia, we could see that our surroundings were our lives.

In the before times, I hated grey days.  Rainy days were fine:  there is purpose in that--when there isn't malice, I suppose.  We have so much to rethink.  Anyway, string of grey days could make me tired, perhaps a little grouchy, more than a little blue.  But this fall I found myself leaning into the grey days.  They weren't hot.  I never suspected that one kind of weather would completely change my relationship with another, but it seems to have done so.

I find that a grey day changes how I see.  I'm suddenly aware of the bark of elms.  Older trees have great cracks in bark that has been riven by the tree's growth.  I'm curious.  Why do the branches of elms--most trees, really--look like lace while hedges seem like tangles?  Each species of tree has general architectural principles.  The elm was beloved by cities for the ways its branches arched over the streets they were planted along.  Maples are rounder balls of leaves.  But inside those general principles, each tree is different.  Just as there are no two identical snowflakes (apparently:  I don't know how anyone has proven this) there are no two identical elms. Hedges, on the other hand, are largely tangles, maybe even more complicated if their owners have been trimming them and they've grown away from the monthly threat of the trimmers.  On grey days, I go all metaphorical and see the human condition in both. Trees are ordered yet individual, like so many people.  Hedges speak to those times in our lives when we can't find any order, any through line, any sense. 

I appreciate sparrows on grey days.  I'm reading Richard O. Prum's The Evolution of Beauty, about how female sexual selection of mates has nudged the males of their species toward ever more beauty--sometimes to their detriment. Prum calls these adaptations, away from survival and toward beauty, decadent. Club-winged Manakins, for example, can sing with their wings, which the females seem to like, but it's made their flight awkward.  The sparrows seemed to have missed this chapter.  Yet on grey days, their tan, rufous brown, grey, and black markings seem to me workmanlike, practical.  I pay attention to them on a snowy grey day when they queue up on tree branches to take turns at my feeder.  They penetrate the grey weather with their swift, purposeful flight across my yard, navigating the neighbour's fence with the skills of the Millennium Falcon. Like the Millennium Falcon, they don't look like much, yet they seem to thrive. That's hopeful--realistically hopeful.

Grey, I think to myself, is the colour of reflection. Of honest reflection that melds one's highs and lows, one's strengths and weaknesses, one's wins and losses. It's a colour with a slow music that can't quite decide whether its key is major or minor. A dove grey music.  A mourning dove's beautiful yet mournful song. But it's the kind of reflection that leads to seeing how such disparate parts of our lives fit together in a modest way.


1 comment:

  1. This is lovely. And sad. Lytton was a beloved place for me. I set a novella there, its young protagonist using it as a base to map the work of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. I've rafted the Thompson river twice, from Spences Bridge to Lytton, and love that dry sage country.