A quick note before I get into it: this newsletter, just like the podcast, is work. It is unpaid labor that I’ve voluntarily taken on to feel more empowered as a storyteller and less beholden to media narratives dictated by market forces. A paid subscription to the newsletter is a vital way of supporting this work, particularly at this time. Thank you.
I hope you’ve been taking walks! At least for now, and perhaps depending on where you’re reading this from, social distancing and isolation does not mean you can’t go outside. The weather is getting better. Being outside keeps me from feeling as though my body is molding into a couch-shaped nub, and it relaxes my heart to see people still doing regular things — running, pushing baby strollers, walking the dog. Being outside has given me the ability to connect to this social experience in a way that invites contemplation and perspective, rather than fear.
On Sunday, a friend and I took a baby dose of shrooms and walked through High Park. We ended up on a bench that had been warmed by the sun, and looked out onto the quiet pond and the families traipsing up and down the hill. My friend pointed out a hawk circling above. If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember the hawk stories I posted a few months back during my morning lakefront walks. Back then I kept seeing this hawk perched on drooping boughs and flying low over the shoreline. I’d come home and Google random hawk facts, and began to feel an affinity for the bird.
Initially, I thought the hawk was an eagle. I grew up in Brampton and don’t know shit about the outdoors beyond what I learned from three years of Girl Guides summer camp. But then I read that female hawks are usually bigger than male hawks so they’re often mistaken for eagles, and I felt vindicated in my rudimentary assessment. I was also convinced it wasn’t multiple hawks I was seeing, but the same one: her. I’d send screenshots to friends from websites about the spiritual significance of seeing or dreaming about hawks. If a hawk appears in your life, it means that you should observe things around you very carefully. This bird can see not only what is happening around her, but also something supernatural. In ancient times hawks were considered as a symbol of the soul.
At the same time, I was working on an essay that made me feel feral and exposed and uncomfortable in my own skin. I took the hawk’s presence to mean that I was on the right track — that sitting in the discomfort of writing through things I’ve observed, things I’d felt too ashamed to look at more closely, to connect with, was necessary. According to my phone’s photo history, the last time I saw the hawk was a few days before I went to England in mid-January. Until Sunday, when I saw her circling high above and then swooping down to the water. I wonder what she wants me to see righ now?
On Monday after another park walk with a different friend, I strolled back down Roncy toward my apartment as the sun began its arc over the street. The air smelled like the lake. That is to say, it smelled fresh, stony, slightly peaty, and like the wind. That is to say, it smelled like the top note of the main drag of a beach town — the ones lined with stores selling pool toys, castle-shaped pails, and novelty t-shirts — french fries and gasoline being the scents that lurk below. I didn’t go to lakefront cottages until I was an adult so this is my primary association with outdoor bodies of water. And I can’t recall ever enjoying the smell of Lake Ontario from downtown Toronto, but apparently the water in the Venice canals has cleared up and air pollution and CO2 levels are dropping, so maybe something has changed.
On this morning’s walk, I saw two bloated animal carcasses that had washed up on the shore. I went close, but not too close, as if I was scared the creatures would sputter to life and nip my ankles (again — I didn’t really grow up… outside). Both were belly up and very clearly bloated so I couldn’t tell what they were, but one was brown, kind of like a beaver but without the huge tail, and the other was black and white like a skunk but also without the huge tail. I wondered if back to back dead critters was a normal sighting, a sign of seasons and water patterns shifting, or if I should call city services to remove the carcasses for, like, hygiene reasons? Then I wondered if that would be a frivolous call to make right now given what city workers are dealing with. And then I wondered if it was extremely big city and idiotic of me to react to the sight of dead wildlife within the smalls of the urban wild by calling for its removal. All I did was think, I didn’t do, and it was nice to think about something else.
I hadn’t really grouped these moments in my mind until an hour ago, while watching this fascinating short film called ôtênaw by Conor McNally, who is based in Edmonton/Treaty 6. It’s been bookmarked for a few days: I got the link from the IG stories of one of my current favourite bands, nêhiyawak, who did the film’s music.
The film is a brief overlap of Indigenous and colonial histories of the Edmonton area from the perspective of a local educator, who draws upon written and oral narratives about the area, as well as nêhiyawak (Cree) philosophy. I was moved by his description of the concept of ‘wahkohtowin,’ which I’d never heard of before. It is a well-known kinship or relational ideology that also forms Cree legal doctrine. This is what he says:
“Wahkohtowin is a wisdom concept. What it teaches is that, as human beings, we understand ourselves as enmeshed in a series of relationships that give us life. And we depend on those [relationships] for our survival. The highest form of human being — the most intelligent form of being — is the one who acknowledges that regularly and tries to live their life in acknowledgement of that. We still try to hang on to that because we know that our way of living today is not going to last. Something is going to change and we’re going to have to ground ourselves again, literally. Wahkohtowin says that the energy that comes from the giver of life lives inside of us. The things we consume contain that energy. So, the sun is the giver of life and our relative, just like the water. Every morning we get up and we drink that water and we carry it around — it’s literally our relative. We can’t live without it. Same with these trees, that grass. That’s what Wahkohtowin is.”
So I thought I might share this documentary with you all because it transported me to a space where our current reality isn’t a blip, or an end point, but part of the way of things. Where the virus isn’t something to be feared, but somehow our relative? It is definitely true that we don’t like all of our relatives. Strange comfort in these deeply mediated times.
Lots of love,
ICYMI: The latest episode of Burn Out is one of my favourites: a chat with Katie Stelmanis, aka Austra.