rough notes

i stole this from a hockey card

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As I was channel surfing between periods or goals scored during game 7 of the Montreal-Boston playoff series on Monday I came across The Hour with your boyfriend, George Stroumboulopoulos. Amoung other things, Strombo was talking to the audience about the significance of that particular day in Canadian and in hockey history. It was April 21, the anniversary of the Leafs Stanley Cup Championship with over the Habs in 1951. There’s nothing too memorable about that particular championship (aside from the fact that it was the team’s fifth win in seven years), but there was definitely something special about the way that it was won. April Twenty-One, Nineteen Hundred and Fifty-One, you remember from your pop-music sensibilities, is that special day in Canadian hockey history when Bill Barilko of the Leafs scored a goal in overtime it undermine the Habs. Barilko would disappear that summer, and so would Maple Leaf hockey championships, until 1961, when his body was found in the bush.

Your boyfriend narrated the events to us by reciting the lyrics to The Tragically Hip’s “50 Mission Cap” to the camera. It was all very cute and endearing, not only because of the anniversary itself, but because, it being spring time, I have found myself as of late pulling out old gems from The Hip catalogue in order to commune with the sun. My pop-musical tastes generally sway toward darker, extended tracks heavy on the synth and light on the guitar. This can be explained away by my arrogance and my pretense, or by my late-teen and early-20s infatuation with ambient and downtempo beats – basically, if its got Brian Eno involved, then I’m keen on it (except for Roxy Music, of course). But when the sun starts shining, I do find myself reaching toward Summertime Festival / Arena Rock. Yay. So Strombo’s timing was incredibly… timely.. given the timing of the sun in these parts this year.

But back to Bill Barilko. I like to think that Gord Downie, in his quest to create a genuine canon of Canadian folklore (in spite of the inherent paradox involved in actively *generating* folklore) reached out to the story of Barilko and hit the mark. Barilko’s story is great for folklore not because of the hockey, not and not because of the stovepipe cup, but because he disappeared and died in a plane crash near Cochrane, Ontario, while en route to somewhere in northern Quebec on a fishing trip. Cochrane is Pretty Far North in Ontario. It’s still on Hwy 11, so its accessible and not “in the boonies”, as they say. But if you are planning on going to “the boonies”, then Cochrane is as good a place to start as any.

When I say, “the boonies”, I betray my upbringing in the comforting, and hollow confines of suburban southern ontario. I may be calling it “the boonies”, but in Downie’s world, on the Canadian Folkloric Map he was sketched out for the past twentyfive years, “the boonies” is where one locates the heart and soul of the nation. Sometimes we call it “the boonies,” but a lot of the time we call it “the north.”

Here in Nova Scotia, I notice that I don’t talk about “the north” anymore. North of me is Cape Breton, and north of that is Newfoundland. And north of Newfoundland (notwithstanding Labrador, a mainland experience of the Rock’s own particular and peculiar folklore) is the North Atlantic. “The North”, from the perspective of Southern Ontario, is where The Ends of the Earth begins. The North is not the Arctic, and its not inaccessible. And neither is it a no man’s land, because Its still part of your province. “Going Up North”, rather, is to go to the fringes of your known space, of your known lands. Going Up North is not to travel to a wasteland, or to a necessarily unknown space, but it is still to travel to a place entirely different from what you known in life thus far. In that space between there and here, that area we have declared to be ours though we do not live in it or experience it, there be monsters.

When I look at old maps of the Atlantic, maps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I notice that “here be monsters” still can be found on the oceans. Even though the Americas had been discovered (or at least the eastern seaboard has been charted) and sailors and voyagers knew where they’re going and how to get there, that middle space between here and there was still a place to encounter the unreal, the fantastic, the wondrous or the monstrous. The Arctic and the High North (as opposed to the simple North), perhaps because it was a destination and could be marked and located on a map and therefore psychologically “controlled”, does not have monsters. There may be identifiable animals, but one will not find behemoths in the places one travels to. One find monsters only in the space one must travel through to get to where one is going.

The Arctic was still powerful and destructive, but the sublimity of its landscape created there a relationship between man and nature. We were not in control in the Arctic, but we decided to respect the Arctic for a time, so the Arctic respected us in return. Man might be subordinate to the power of nature in the Arctic, but at least man knew where the power was; with knowledge of this structure, it would only be a matter of time before these positions might reverse. Many sketch-drawings of the Sublime in nature feature the Arctic as opposed to the intermediate spaces between there are here. In spite of the power and terror of these cold, barren regions, in spite of that which makes these spaces sublime in the first place, we can moderately tame them with the stroke of a pen. No one draws the fringes and the in-between spaces, though. The fringes remain a true unknown. It is those places we instead draw and insert the fantastic, that we insert the monsters. It is in those spaces that folklore resides.

Cochrane doesn’t have the monsters I see on maps of the north Atlantic. But it is on the fringes of that unknown space that must be travelled before getting to your destination. That’s where Barilko died. Interestingly, Tom Thomson, who Downie recalls in his song “Three Pistols”, also died in these intermediate paces. Thomson disappeared in Algonquin Park while on a canoe trip of one sort or another in 1919. (I don’t know offhand is his body was ever found.) The park is a nature preserve, about a four hour drive from Toronto, or a little more than two hours from Ottawa. Algonquin isn’t nearly as isolated as Cochrane is, but it still represents the beginnings of The North to suburban Ontario. What is so interesting about Algonquin, and other large-scale parks close to urban centres in Canada, however, is that they also represent our attempts to assert sovereignty over these intermediate spaces. The Parks are named and branded and marked by various provincial and national governing bodies, lending to our maps the appearance of dominion over these lands. But what we find when we drive to them to “camp” for the night (i.e. to pretend to be able to commune with nature and the unknown) is that the park wardens and volunteers and representatives of society and the state tell us we can only hike so far and we can only go into the bush for so long before they will give up on our persons and declare us Lost. Implicit in their statements, implicit in the logos, the nature paths, the plaques, the guides and trails, is the fact that we have not tamed this intermediate space. One should stay on the trail, but one should remember that the trail is not a sanctuary from the monsters. The parks aren’t parks after all. They’re not even thrill rides. The parks are not so much santuaries from the monsters, but sanctuaries for the monsters.

Bill Barilko didn’t die on his fishing trip. Barilko died trying to get there. He died in the uncharted space between here and there. That’s why he’s great subject matter for Downie to play with. Had Barilko died on the fishing trip, his body would likely have been found quicker than it was when his plane crashed in the bush. As it stands, his body was found completely by chance, only because the unknown granted it back to us. This would not have happened, and Downie would not have a song, had Barilko got to where he was going.

I actively try not to promote the Canada=Nature trope that has lived in our culture and our psyche for so long, since Canada does not equal nature. “Canada”, rather, equals “Imagining Nature”. Canada equals Living On The Thin Line Between America and Nature. (This is a slight deviation from the Atwood School. It is slight enough for me to harp about it as if its my own yet still have to acknowledge how I’ve come to thinking about it). That’s what Downie is invoking in “50 Mission Cap”. There is hockey and hockey cards and the Leafs and the Canadiens, so it does smack of Canada like America does in a Rockwell painting. But at its heart, I think the song speaks of a non-corporate, non-commercial sense of Candianness (not “Canadiana”) in the way it flutters with the unknown spaces outside many of our doors.


Written by mitchellirons

April 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm

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