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Life

In Tahsis, a Snug Fit

I thought I’d left for good. But I’m getting too old to run.

By Anne Cameron 12 Apr 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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Spring comes to Tahsis in shades and tones of pink. The ornamental Japanese plum and cherry trees blossom first, then the bright pink curly lilies show themselves. I haven't seen these flowers anywhere else, but here there are masses of them, some growing in the thick moss on the rocks and bluffs along the bank of the river, some growing in "the wasteland" where the sawmills dumped their loads and loads of hog fuel, sawdust, and debris of all kinds.

These little curly lilies are tough, and incredibly fragile, just like this area I have chosen, again, as my home. I lived in Tahsis briefly more than twenty-five years ago. It was boom time then, three mills going around the clock, the noise rose from the machines and echoed off the bluffs, back and forth across the valley until I felt as if it was all happening behind my eyes, filling my head with rhythmic pounding. The town was full, then, and so were the bars. Too many unattached workies with plenty of money in their pockets and not much to do after work except go to the bar and tie one on. For entertainment, they went out behind the building and punched each other with work-hardened fists.

My daughter was twelve and came racing into the doublewide one evening, repeating a license number. Her younger brother came behind her, and headed for the phone. She wrote the license number on a piece of paper, then began to cry, between sobs telling how some guy had tried to force her into his car. She fought, her brother fought, between them they managed to get her away from the perv , then they ran home. He followed in his car so they left the roadway and cut across the unpaved area. My husband grabbed his hunting rifle and headed out of the house, I took the phone from my son and told the person handling the police calls that they now had a second problem, an enraged Metis with a gun. The police headed him off, suggested he give them the weapon and go home, then they tracked down the car of the offender and put him in handcuffs. I expected we would have to testify in court but that wasn't necessary and my husband got his gun back the next day.

I started packing. To hell with this! No job is worth this! Wouldn't be caught dead in this damned place!

We moved and, for years, when I thought "Tahsis" I also thought "no way!".

Just a look

The mills are gone, the bunkhouse has become a lodging house, the streets are quiet. I came back three and a half years ago just to "have a look" at the changes. I saw Tahsis, the new Tahsis, with different eyes, and now, here I am, firmly settled in, owner of a modular and a piece of what we call land. It isn't land. This, before industry, before progress, before the boom, was a wetland, a resting place for the unbelievable numbers of migratory birds. My daughter-in-law's family tell me their grandparents told them of coming here with nets, to catch geese and ducks. But the mills needed a place to dump their waste and now my modular sits on about forty feet of slowly composting sawdust topped with maybe three to six feet of round rocks probably dredged from the river.

It wouldn't be allowed today, of course, but it happened Before and nothing will return this to wetland, nothing will undo what was done. I don't mourn it, I'm slowly learning some things just are, and you do what the birds have done, and make your way around what you can't change. Trumpeter swans still come here, they form up in distinct family groups, each group has it's own place in the river, in the estuary, in the bay. Right now the bay is full of ducks of all kinds, a birder would think this place Paradise.

The forsythia is blooming yellow, someone came to the vacant lot near my place and dug up several clumps of bamboo to take back to his place. He'll be sorry, the stuff is invasive as hell, he'll be whapping it back in a few years. The hummingbirds are back, we have The Hummingbird Society, we put up feeders for them, we plant the kind of flowers and shrubs they prefer, we want to fill the Tahsis air with the brightly coloured living jewels. We mutter about the scads of wild cats, try to figure out ways to keep them away from the feeders.

We got snow the first day of Spring, we muttered and mumbled, then the sun came out and the snow disappeared in the valley but not up on the peaks. The dog salmon need a good snow pack; just when the small ones are ready to leave the nursery-river the snow pack will melt, the rush of water will take the young dog salmon far enough out in the bay they will escape the ducks, the swans, the hungry bigger fish who would eat them. Without a good snow melt, the dog salmon would be reduced in numbers.

Dewishus

It's amazing how things fit together. Everyone on the coast knows herring season is a time of heavy rain and often dangerous storms. Sometimes the rain falls so heavily the top two or three inches of the ocean is actually fresh water, you can drink it and not taste any salt. Fresh water makes the herring eggs sticky, fresh water is what actually kickstarts the development of the young herring. Without fresh water the eggs will be fertilized, but they will not grow, will not hatch. So the storms whip up the kelp and move it around, the fresh water makes the eggs sticky, the kelp becomes covered with it. The native people put trees in the water, the herring lay eggs on the branches until all you can see is eggs, then my daughter-in-law and her family pull the trees from the water, strip off strings of eggs, hundreds of pounds of herring eggs, which they process and eat.

The halibut follow the herring, the salmon follow the herring, the seals follow the herring, the orca follow the seals...the rain makes the eggs stick and starts the development of the next generation, the kelp is torn loose by the storms and sinks under the weight of herring eggs, taking the bounty deep enough to protect it from the birds. The seals feast on the adult herring, the orca feast on the seals. Salmon feast on eggs, halibut feast on eggs and on herring, everyone feasts, the bounty is almost unbelievable, and everything does its part. And when the snow melts the young dog salmon will ride the outflow past the ones waiting to eat them, and another generation will begin the life journey which will bring them back to this river to spawn, to die, to be eaten by the bears, by the raccoons, by the river otters.

Everything fits. My four year old grand daughter told me her daddy, (my son), had taken them out in the boat to watch the herring fleet pulling up tons and tonnes of fish. Four years old and she tells me the nets looked as if they were boiling. "Just like in the cooking pot, Grandma", and she moved her hands to demonstrate how the fish roiled as they were brought over the side. She tells me seals are real hard to catch but if you get one the meat is "dewishus", better than hamburger. She knows, already, about the smoke house, she and her younger sister help carry in wood, but, she says, don't touch the axe because it's vewwy sha'p and daddy will bark at you.

Grandma’s world

At home they live one culture, when they visit Grandma they live another. When they learned to count they learned the Qou'us words first, then the English ones. At home they eat mostly fish, at Grandma's they get a huge treat, they can have Kraft Dinner, which they think is "dewishus". Grandma always has ice cream , and Grandma always has freezies; Ice cream doesn't make the trip out to Queen's Cove but freezies can, and that's a minor mystery. Springtime for them is picking rhubarb from dad's garden and having mommy make "chummis". Anything sweet is "chummis". Chocolate bars are chummis, cake is chummis, and sometimes honeynut cheerios are chummis, too. They don't have TV at Queen's Cove so when they come to visit Grandma they are allowed to watch an hour of cartoons in the morning and another hour at night. That, and popcorn, then they brush their teeth and go to bed and we sing our bedtime song. It is our song. We are the only ones in the whole wide world who know that song! We sing it because we are friends. In fact, says the four year old, we are girlfriends!

And everything fits. They seem comfortable with two very different cultures in their lives. Sometimes I worry about what is in store for them when they leave the safety of family and move into the wider world, into a school system which is in no way structured to accomodate their other culture. Then I give myself a mental kick in the butt and remind myself these kids come from a family which managed to survive absolutely everything culture clash threw at them, and I am reassured.

Everything fits. We try to bend ourselves to make room in our lives for other ways of doing things. It is amazing, and beautiful, how people can adapt and include each other, how we all want the same things for the kids.

Dragon hunting

We went for a walk in the rain, with the dogs on leashes, one dog for each girlfriend. We admired the blossoms, we talked about how the bees get their food from flowers, how they turn it into honey which we can use for chummis. We went down to the wasteland looking for baby dragons. We found some under a rotting log. Some people call them skinks, other people call them salamanders, but we know they are baby dragons. We've seen the pictures, eh, we know a dragon when we see one. And they are friendly. Dragons are small now because the fey people told them they were taking up too much space and eating all the sheep and all the cows and even the turnips and peas, and the people were fed up, eh, so the fey said you have to be smaller and not eat so much, so they changed because who wants a guy in a tin suit to poke you with a spear?

They know about the fey, they know about little people, we have found fairy rings where they dance at night. They also know about raven and wolf and how the salmon gave themselves so the people would have food. They know the turkey vulture refused to kill anything so the Enchanter said there would always be food for them and that's why they eat things already dead, and keep the beach clean.

Everything fits. And Spring comes to Tahsis in shades of pink, of imported ornamental trees and the indigenous pink curly lily, small heads nodding in the breeze, there when the hummers come back, there when the bees come awake and are hungry. Everything fits in Tahsis, even two very young girls and one very very not-young Grandma. "You can't run, eh Grandma? You can't run because you're old and fat, eh?". "Old and fat and with a gammy leg." "What's gammy?" "It means a bum leg." "Oh. That's why you can't run, eh? You got you a bum leg?". "That's right. And I'm old and fat." "But not very fat, Grandma. You're hardly fat at all. My dad says you're a skinnymalink.". "Me? A skinnymalink? I'll show you a skinnymalink when I catch you." "You can't catch me, Grandma. You can't run and I can."

Everything fits.

Anne Cameron is the author of Daughters of Copper Woman, Dreamspeaker, the Annie Poems and many other best selling books and children’s stories.  [Tyee]

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