Last summer, as a way of motivating myself to write, I entered a story writing contest. It was fun! It gave me pleasure to create a piece, and finish it off and at the end still like it. I’ve been wanting to share it with you. If you get all the way to the end, you’ll also see the video that goes along with the story, which is really the whole inspiration for the story, and I think pretty incredible. (This particular video was taken after the fish had been out of the water for 15 or 20 minutes. We were out for the day on Great Slave Lake with the fabulous fishing guide Greg Robertson, from Bluefish Guiding. Look him up if you are even in town. Best viewed with audio off.)
When I was little, I learned to fish in the small streams of British Columbia. Alongside those singing creeks, I began to hear the voice of the wilderness, and, for the very first time, my own voice, the quiet sound of one small and sensitive girl. For years, those small clear mountain streams were my compass, the needle that pointed me to my place in the world. The first time I caught a fish, and then learned, too late, that fish were for eating, I cried. I did not want this shiny, silvery, wiggling sliver of wonder to die. It seemed to me that there should be no place for death in the life of something so beautiful. Of course now that I am grown up, I know that death is a necessary part of the natural cycle of life. I understand this, but still, I cannot agree.
Now I’ve grown up, and I live on a houseboat on Great Slave Lake. This place is not like any land I’ve ever known. It’s flat, and spare, wind scoured and exposed. This land does not gather me into its arms and offer protection. But here the light is luminously beautiful, ethereally alive. It has a palpable presence, and the land hums. And those astonishing northern lights: fragile green ribbons that dance overhead and somehow hook you about the heart, so that you can feel the hand of the great spirit tugging you onwards, to the life you were meant to live.
Great Slave Lake seems magical, the life in these waters astonishing. I imagine this is once how it might have been all over the continent, before we dumped our industrial waste into the rivers, for the sake of making money; and dammed them, to run air conditioners; and drained them, so that we might play golf. This lake is home to fish innumerable. These are not the small trout of my childhood, but a whole new world of fish, fish as big as my arm, fish as big as my leg. Fish I’ve never heard of before, whitefish, grayling, lake trout, pike, ling cod, and the mysterious inconnu. Fishing up here helps me to understand how the Dene survived before the Extra Foods grocery store came to town. It’s easy to imagine catching a big supply to last one through the winter. One still can.
It turns out I love casting. Sending the lure and line whirling out across the water, exactly where you planned, is satisfying. Like playing scales on the violin – if you pay attention, it is enough. Catching the fish is the part I don’t like. I remain a very ambivalent fisherman. I like to eat fish, and I love the idea of sustainable food, eating food from my back yard instead of food from California, or Mexico or China, but the truth is I don’t really want to catch a big and beautiful fish. I want him to stay in the lake and live out his fishy life.
Around here, you can’t cast long without hooking a fish. These lusty fish bite at anything. I am always happy to see a small fish on the line, as he’ll be released back into the lake. And the really big ones, more experienced, seem to be able to get away from me without any help. A medium sized fish is the unlucky one, the one who gets conked on the head and served for lunch.
It would be easy, when preparing a fresh fish to eat, to cast aside the guts without a second thought. But if you look, you can see in them the wonder of the universe. Even if the fish has been out of water for five, ten, twenty minutes or more, and for all intents and purposes dead for that same amount of time, you will find the heart still beating. Imagine the sight of a beating fish heart separated from its rightful place in the world. There, on the ground, where you would expect only grass and sticks, leaves and dirt, is instead life itself. Imagine holding this life in the palm of your hand.
This fish heart is full of bravery. There is no hope of success. No matter how hard this heart works, the fish is not going to survive. Yet the heart doesn’t give up, it beats on and on. Imagine if your heart was like that too, not giving up. Continuing to beat, in spite of all odds, against all reason, against all hope. In spite of tar sands, and climate change, and the mess of 300 tons of arsenic left over from the gold mine, now stored underground just a few kilometers from my home on this amazing lake. Maybe these hearts are the reason this lake remains so clear and clean, against all odds. These hearts are the reason the Dene have survived on this harsh land for generations, before guns and gasoline and Canada Goose Parkas and grocery stores. These hearts are the reason the sun keeps sending out its immeasurably beautiful light across the world, a light so beautiful even in its dying embers are luminous. These hearts are the reason the full moon keeps coming back, the moon that hangs like a giant ripe peach, calling out to be tasted, the moon juice running right down your chin, uncontainable. These hearts make the music that our own hearts sing to when we are out on the water, or out on the land, in the great quiet of the wilderness. These hearts call the dancing and singing northern lights, and these hearts call us too, luring us onwards. To the life we were meant to live. Perhaps these hearts and their beautiful music can even yet save us from ourselves. These hearts are the hope for our future.