happy new year from canada


When I was an undergraduate student, I had a friend who lived down the hall and was prone to asking well-meaning but clueless questions. One day we were sitting in the lounge on the fourth floor and he turned to me and said, “Jenn, I have a question.”

“Sure, A,” I said, looking up from my textbook.

“Well, I was talking to S. And, you know, she’s on the golf team. So she was telling me that while she was at home in Ottawa over the break, she’d been doing some golfing…”

Long pause. “Yes?” I prompted.

“So, I was just wondering… do you have indoor golf courses in Canada?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Did she say she was at an indoor golf course? I would have assumed she was just outside, like normal.”

“Right,” said A, leaning forward earnestly, “but how could she be golfing outside? I thought that you didn’t have any… you know, grass. In Canada. Isn’t it all just ice and snow?”

I corrected him, but now I’m wondering if he may have been right after all. I come from the weather-privileged enclave of the Pacific Northwest – Cascadia, if you will, the enchanted emerald region that my friend G hopes to one day be president of – and we do not have snow. We have a couple of inches of slush that melts long before Vancouver Island’s single snowplow can make a sad attempt at pushing it off the road and onto the perennially green grass. We have rain, and also drizzle, and clouds and mist and fog and a general sense of majestic gloom. If you happen to be looking out at the ocean or the forest, you might experience it more as an ancient, implacable fecundity – the mossy faces of evergreen islands being covered and uncovered by mists that obscure the division between shore and sea so that the swelling kelp forests unfurl like shining roots below the firs. Everything is alive and in motion, from the rain dripping off of mushroom caps to the tiny fronds of barnacles’ fingers combing plankton from the tide. Green and growing, 24/365.

This is the Canada I grew up in. Canada for wimps. As soon as I crossed the Rockies the snow began to fall, and temperatures were in the negative twenties all through the Prairies, causing my car to make an unpleasant strangled screeching when I started it up. This seemed like a reasonable protest. I had never even contemplated driving a car in such conditions and I remain faintly amazed that these ever-so-ordinary machines continue to get us from place to place, nobly skidding across frozen roads and breathing gasps of hot exhaust into the frigid January air.

Below the border, though, things were WARM. I spent Christmas in upstate New York enjoying bizarrely spring-like temperatures, even getting a brief lesson in barefoot running which included prancing across a muddy field on nothing but the tender soles of my own two naked feet. We wore cotton instead of wool and vetoed a Christmas fire because it was simply too warm outside. My car did not sound like an angry robot baby when I started it up.

Very relaxing. Then I drove back up to Montreal for New Year’s, and experienced what A might have been imagining when he thought of Canada: temperatures steadily dropping as I approached the border, snow accumulating on the ground throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, and then BAM – Quebec and -14°, frozen fields and snow in the forecast. It felt like I was heading into the Great White North, my foot on the accelerator speeding me away from positive temperatures beneath the wide gray sky. When I arrived in Montreal, I parked my car near the mountain and stepped out into the cold. CANADAAAAA!!! No golfing, and easy to imagine that the transition northwards is like this year-round: bare feet in New York, snow globe winter wonderland in Quebec. I spent New Year’s Eve bundled into a firelit chalet on the edge of a frozen lake, keeping warm in a variety of old-fashioned ways and sending up prayers of ardent appreciation for my homeland: her kelp forests and shivering frostbitten birch trees, her teeming Pacific shoreline and black, bubble-starred frozen lakes. Her jagged mountains and vast open prairies and deep woods and her people, her people most of all. The First Nations to whom the land first belonged to, and the generations of immigrants who have made our homes here, all of us shaped by this land as much as we allow ourselves to listen to it.

I am so grateful to have driven across this great country (well, almost across – apologies to Atlantic Canada, I promise to visit you in the future). Happy New Year from Canada. And farewell, Canada – in a few days I’ll be shooting southwards and not looking back.

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