Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Knight of Glin

I sometimes think that Heaven is all about memory, and I have the greatest reason to adhere to that consideration after this morning's wrestle with the Muse. Jacob's all night tussle with that heavenly visitor was no exaggeration.
I was, for a variety of excellent reasons, all primed to hit this post this morning with a tribute to one of the finest treasures of the Pacific Northwest, the huckleberry. It's been three full summers, you see, since MT and I, and Shawn if she had the day off, have scoured the local slopes for the fruit that makes the Kootenay winter the finest in the world. Renovations were the culprit. We've had to be here for our wonderfully skilled tradesmen. But the reconstruction of house and grounds, except for what we can do ourselves, is over. Our schedule is our own, and once we knew it would be, we thought again of the berry grounds.
The first huckle pick, back in the summer of 74, included the entire family, and did not actually start out as a quest for the dark blue first desk man of the summer symphony orchestra. My youngest, one of the cheering section for Dad's new enterprise on the Net, was then turning five, just old enough for an extended ramble in the bush. The family set out on a Saturday hike, loaded with lunch and water bottles, up to a trail first shown to Marianne by a high school friend who's father had been on staff at the university. We'd earlier done a road up there, and watched our dog and a huckleberry eating bear ignore each other, but we'd never scouted for the berry itself, even though we were well aware that for many of our fellow Nelsonites this was an annual event, a kind of gatherers' and gleaners' annual World Series, with the score not coming in runs, but in pounds and the quality of the year, depending on frosts, rainfall, and bees.
By the time we were ready for lunch, we had climbed high enough to be in good berry country. With a drinking vessel to each man, and a large tin box that had held the lunch, we were rigged for picking. We had always been a family of walkers, but now we were pickers as well and all hands fell to, in spite of the area being somewhat difficult, owing to steep slopes and fallen logs. Our score was five pounds, which we were very proud of until Shawn, a few days later, met a lad from a large family with years of experience and an off road vehicle for getting to the best places, who said his outfit had hauled in 200 pounds over the weekend. Undaunted, we took up the tradition in following summers and got up to harvests much larger than our first, and thus knew the winter delight of huckleberry pies, tarts, muffins, etc. The annual hunt thus became part of the family tradition, running 30 years until the renovations took over. On the Wednesday just passed, happily a cool, even wet, day unique in this long, hot, summer, our take was just over 20 pounds, with an introduction to a new device I call the bear claw, out of Lee Valley, no doubt one of our era's finest arguments for free enterprise. It's a plastic scoop, with rounded wire teeth. It took me all day and a rainstorm to finally realize the genius of the device, but MT, being a woman and a gatherer for the sake of her kitchen and the glories of a pie or two appearing in the Christmas season, was on to it from the get go. Also, as a herbalist, she had a sense that the leaves that came with the berries could be used medicinally. She was right. Looking into Terry Willard teaches us that the huckleberry leaf does the same work as leaf of the bear berry. When they are so good at humbling men in so many theatres, why do women desire the profound inefficiency of a female priest?
So the writer was trying to get to this, and to editing and posting chapter five of Contemplatives, where the presence of the Virgin Mary and some of her company is so thick you can cut it with a broadsword, but somehow he could not make it to the computer. So, he carried on reading his journals. When in doubt, study history.
July 22, 1982. "Letter from Desmond. He lost the photocopies. I can only chuckle. It is not always true that no news is good news. Says he'll be at Qualicum from Aug 5 to 18. Do I have a trip coming?" In those weeks, with what then looked like a reasonable hope of being published in Toronto by an old friend, I had been contacting old acquaintances, and had sent Desmond a photocopy of the first three chapters or so.
Back in the winter of 57-58, Sir Desmond Fitzgerald, the last Knight of Glin, now an art expert, and with his wife a valiant labourer in the struggle to keep heritage buildings in Ireland up to scratch, was fully involved on the UBC campus in the fine art of making rhetoric and literature available to the student public. He was something of a key figure in my own intellectual journey, because in many of the intimations I'd had over the 57 summer, as I deliberated over the question of journalism in Toronto, or a return to UBC for another year, I often felt that I had simply not seen enough of university life. I was only a few weeks back at the campus when I attended a debate between Fitzgerald and one Derek Fraser. The subject was the Monarchy, that is, in 1957, the Queen. To keep her, or let her go? I was not then aware of the Fitzgerald relationship with the monarchy, nor had I met Shawn, who would later tell me that she knew Derek, remembering him well from Kootenay area Bible reading competitions during Music Festival week. But I did know Derek from Older Boys' Parliament.
The debate was a hoot. Why not? Desmond was an Irish knight-to-be, and Derek would go into External Affairs. I knew I had made the right choice to come back to UBC, but I also saw that I had no skill whatsoever for debating, in public, simply political questions.
This was not, however, the Knight of Glin's finest hour, in my particular history. In October of 57 I was not a little inflamed to write a short story, "The Axe", which Desmond later published as editor of The Raven, and then in February of 58 he provided an utterly unique occasion of hospitality. You had to be there. You also have to have some background.
Precisely a year previous, one of my roommates had attended a clambake called the Academic Symposium, a gathering of faculty and student posited to discuss issues of pedagogy. Was the faculty getting through? If not, what could be done about it? Jerry had come back utterly excited, not only about the symposium itself, held up in the center of Vancouver Island at the Parksville Lodge, but also because a small group of students, including him, had driven down island to Victoria to confront the then Premier, W.A.C. Bennett, to demand new funding for UBC classrooms, out of which came the Buchanan Building.
Now Jerry had been part of the series of inspirations that had hurled me out of law school, and, again, he came up with a spark that told me, then working in downtown Vancouver, that I really should consider returning to the campus in the next year, and not only coming back but hooking up with the Academic Symposium. Thus I got myself involved with the selection committee for the symposium, before I met Shawn, and was thus in a good position to make sure she got on the list to go to Parksville after I met her.
Desmond was also on the list, I think because he had become editor of The Raven.
It was a ferry to Nanaimo, and a bus to Parksville, full of highly charged students, one of them completely enamoured, there was room check-in, supper, probably some kind of welcoming ceremony, and then dozens of students milling around at loose ends. Suddenly the knight took centre stage, with a lad who had come by car in tow, and announced to three of us - Shawn, myself, and a another lad who had been interested in her, that he thought he'd motor up to his mother's place at Qualicum and would we like to come along?
The mother's place was, literally, fit for a queen. Elizabeth and Phillip had stayed there on their 1952 journey around the Commonwealth. It not only had three distinct and very commoudius sections, but in the entrance room stood an Elizabethan dining table, solid oak, narrower than we are used to now. If you bent down a little and looked along the surface you would see the marks of the shaping knives. We bent and we saw, and we also were introduced to the housekeeper. Desmond's mother was away. I think we sat in the gold suite, five students enjoying the setting, the history, and the brotherhood of souls who all cared about literature and the common sense stimulus it gave the mind. And there was, of course, a new romance to celebrate. Would the flare of wit die with the inevitable moving on into the real world, or would it actually amount to something? The evening simply flashed. T.S. Eliot should have been there. Setting, company, opportunity; nothing hollow or stuffed about it, even if all concerned were too young to know how it would end.
The symposium went on for the next two days, but that evening was the most lyrical moment of the weekend.
So much for the 82 journal. Again, in ranging into my morning mind, yesterday, to find the keys for the next foray into cyber world, I was moved to take up my first serious effort at the young writer's daily record. I began it April 21, 1958. The first two young men mentioned are Desmond and one of the lads from the Qualicum adventure.

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