Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Beauty in the Heart of the Land

There is a beauty in the heart of the land of our ancestors. Yes, lands have hearts. Their hearts not only beat, they speak. They speak with words that call out over centuries. They call to us from lakes and rivers, from rocks and woods and maternal soils.

When I first laid eyes on the St. Lawrence the river spoke. It called to me in silence and I responded in kind. To speak of ancestral memory begs for a magical thinking that is uncongenial to me. There’s no mechanism to account for such a thing, no iron proofs, no stony reasons. And yet, the first time I saw this river I felt that this is home. I grew up far from its banks and yet I knew that I was home.

We, the exiles, through poverty banished from this land, feel only her lack. We feel her absence, since absences too are felt and known: love lost, departed family members, the faith we may no longer know, the dreams abandoned in a cynical age.

Québec is called aptly la belle province. No one would mistake me for a photographer but in rural Québec pictures come easy. The picture below I took in 2005 at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli on the south bank of the St. Lawrence down river from Québec City. The colors are music here, the river and sky blending their blues, the clouds and mountains beyond the water providing an obbligato. There is a quality of light here, a crisp purity in the air, that is distinctly Northern.

St. Lawrence at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli

This next picture I took on that same trip, near L’Islet not far from where the previous picture was shot. On this autumn day a huge flock of migratory birds had gathered in the sky. I followed the flock until it rested on the banks of the river behind a large, long-inhabited piece of property. I tried to take a picture of the birds, but at my angle I couldn’t catch them in a photo as they were obscured by a stand of trees.

An old man saw me from the house peering into his property. He marched out of his front door with purpose and I felt a need to explain myself. “Les oiseaux migratoires,” I said and pointed to the white, avian blanket beside the river. He answered but I could not quite catch what he said. He looked over at my car, parked opposite his house and espied a USA plate. He spoke again in a labored English pulled from some long-abandoned, basement storage area of his brain: “I own…all dis lan’…and I say…you can go down!” He then abruptly disappeared into his house.

It was a command I dared not contravene. I went into his backyard, an enviable piece of property planted directly on the river. There the birds, hundreds or thousands of them, were in the sky and beside the river like dense snowflakes in an early winter squall. Toward the center and left of this photo below you will see the white specks, representing my best attempt to shoot the sheer numbers of les oiseaux migratoires. They too felt, by some inexplicable ancestral memory, that this was a home.

Les Oiseaux Migratoires
Near L'Islet

This last picture I took in a different part of Québec, in a place called Lyster in the Eastern Townships region. This was part of the former Nelson Township, Megantic County. This picture, showing the Bécancour River toward evening, was taken right behind the church of Sainte-Anastasie. If you look at the map in a previous post, indicating the location of my ancestor’s property in the 1860s and 1870s, you can see that the Bécancour River ran right beside it not far from where this photo was shot. I have used this photo as the background picture for this blog.

Bécancour River at Lyster

As I took this photo I couldn’t help but imagine my great-grandfather, who grew up here, gazing on this river on a warm summer evening, after a day’s work. This portion of Québec bears a resemblance to northern Vermont or Maine. It is not as startlingly different from my familiar New England as is the Saint Lawrence Valley. But this too is la belle province.

I showed some of these photos to a young cousin and, struck by their beauty, he asked, with great energy, “Why did they leave?”  For the 19th c. habitants, along with the French language and the Catholic faith, the connection to the land was a third element that defined them, the third geometrical point that defined the plane of national identity. Contradictory strains existed in this people: the restless spirit of the voyageur and the sedentary ways of the habitant. Demonstrating the latter, for 200 years my Vermette line moved not 50 miles or so from where my ancestor landed when he came from France in the 1660s.

I am firmly convinced that in most cases our ancestors left this land not because they wanted to but because they had to. So many of our people would not have left their land and their rivers but for the most dire of necessities, the necessity of life or death for their families.

There is a beauty in the heart of this land. This heart beats silently. It takes a sympathetic silence to hear her heart beating, and a still and perceptive mind to receive her beauty and to hear the words she speaks.

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