Sunday, November 30, 2008
I had a childhood that seems unfamiliar to a lot of people who didn't grow up in either Canada or along the northern edge of the United States. The few times I've run into someone who remembers similar things to me, we've compared notes in baffled awe: "You had those neverending tours of maple-syrup tapping plantations, too?" "God, remember those Iroquois longhouses? And the little knick-knacks made of birch bark?""Why are they SWEDISH fish?"
We pulled a lot of taffy in my public schools, as part of the winter unit on Canadian history -- apparently, along with Confederation and fiddle music, we also enjoyed boiling molasses until it was dangerous, winding it around our hands, and then hurling it into the snow with shouts of gay childish laughter. At least, that's what happened in theory; in reality, mostly the teachers boiled the molasses while we ran around shrieking, hopped up on sugar and the noxious whiff of those fruit-scented Crayola markers.
But it never occurred to me when I moved to the States that nobody would know anything about the coureurs du bois, the Hudson Bay Company and the brave men with their enormous canoes who ran beaver pelts from the north to south and back. They were larger than life, striding around in Canadian history with the thrown-back head of Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, wearing buckskins and befriending Indians (they were definitely called Indians back then) and ravishing virgins. The voyageurs.
Voyageurs just means "travellers" in French, but that's what they were; the travellers, the institutionalized nomads of early Canadian history. The voyageurs carried goods and money to les hommes du nord, the settled men of the north who lived with the Natives, and in return, brought back thousands of pelts. They were the truckers of northern Canada, portaging enormous canoes sometimes upwards of 14 kilometers, carrying 160 pound packs on their backs.
Habitants means "the livers" or "those who live" -- they were everyone else, the people with houses and plots of land, with daughters who sewed dowries and fell in love with the coureurs and their manly thighs. The habitants watched the coureurs go by with a frisson of awe and wonder, wishing they could travel but thankful for their homestead and the bright golden light in a window against the dark Canadian night; the voyageurs eyed the settlements with jealousy but couldn't stop from wandering, or they and their communities and families would die freezing.
Will Ferguson, in his book Why I Hate Canadians, says, of Canadian archetypes, "The voyageur stands opposed in intent and imagery to the habitant. The habitant doesn't enter into the landscape, he reorganizes it. He pushes the wilderness back to the edge of the yard and plants crops in rows and grids...The line is firmly drawn in our imagination: the settler and the traveler, the farmer and the nomad. He who stays and he who goes. One left his legacy in the land he cleared and the nation he built. The other moved like smoke through the forest, leaving little, taking less."
This dichotomy has always tugged at people: the difference between he who stays, he who builds a city and splashes his name on it...and he who passes through, untouching and untouched. One is the comfort of your name on grandchildren; one is the observational pleasure of anthropologists, of enabling history to happen behind the scenes.
There is a lot of talk about Noble Savages, the idealization of the Native so-called "primitive" peoples and their in-tune-with-nature miraculous way of living; you could add the voyageurs to that too. They passed through, left no tracks, left little behind, in fact, but the Metis nation and some hilarious coonskin hats. But the way we remember them implies and cements that yearning for something else, that nomadic wandering into the woods, a life of symmetry and symbiosis. We are nations of habitants, with our roads and shopping malls and cities next to rivers that once would have thwarted our passage. We are civilized.
But there is still a yearning for, as Will Ferguson calls it, "the soul gone wild, the garden overrun, the heart that has made its peace with the primal unknown."
I make no judgements. Both lives have drawbacks. But instead of "homeless", from now on, or "nomadic", I might just call myself a voyageur.