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Creative Writing

 

Illustration: Joel Bentley

“Survival Skills,” Creative non‐fiction by Veronica Collins
Illustration: Joel Bentley

The rock was a table. A round, smooth, ancient grey table perfect for a tea party. In my memory there are two perfect chair‐stones, one for my sister and one for me. We perched on them delicately, crooking our baby fingers and pouring out cups of imaginary steaming brew with exaggerated care. The ferns nodded and the birch trees swayed and all was green and white and soft as baby’s breath – as us. Babies. Five and four years and three feet something, us two. Windblown, leaf‐strewn, newborn, wide‐eyed. The woods were luminous, liminal – an otherworld in our world.

It was the beginning of a discovery. Take a rock and add imaginary tea. Venture into the green with a sister or as a solitary. Lose yourself.

***

When I was eleven years – and quickly moving into that space of confusion that inhabits the adolescent years – we moved. We pulled up the roots we had planted in the loam‐rich soil of the southern Ontario peninsula and transplanted all of my family’s fourteen feet onto the soil of a clay‐threaded river basin in northeast British Columbia. My new world was strange: a more strict religious life, an unusually old‐fashioned classroom, and cliques of kids who had spent their entire lives together in the fields and log cabins that were so new to me. It seemed unfriendly at worst, at best confusing.

But I had an ally.

Surrounding the ranchland we lived on was a vast forest – forest “stretching as far as the eye could see,” as my western and pioneer adventure books would have put it. I devoured these books, taken out from a tiny library that still used date stamps and inkpads. Lost in the Barrens, Keep the Wagons Rolling, Mountain of the Sun, Calico Captive, Madeleine Takes Command, Gentle Ben – I knew how to avoid snow‐blindness, mend a cracked wagon rim, fill the spaces of a cabin with moss and mud, cook up salt pork, load a rifle, walk soundlessly in the woods.

This latter skill I actually had the opportunity to practice. I had befriended a quiet, artistic girl with dark hair and dark eyes and softness in all her movements. Way back in her family line there sat a Cherokee grandmother. She was fascinated with this piece of her genetic chain, and as enamored with survival techniques and romance of the wilderness as I. We would practice walking without snapping a twig or crumbling a log, without snagging our clothes on a branch or startling a bird. At first we were clumsy – our feet refused to go where we wished them or seemed to perversely seek out small forest‐floor hollows that would give way in a crunch beneath us. But soon we could creep about without adding a single snap to the sounds of the forest. We could sometimes sneak up on animals, though it was difficult. A deer could smell you, even if you were silent.

We were stalking a dream of independence, or of harmony – I couldn’t have told you which. But I could tell you that there in the woods, padding gently over moss cover or the treacherously crinkly carpet of dead leaves, everything was ok, even calm. There was, of course, the potential thrill of a black bear or a coyote or a wolf pack around the next tangled grove of firs. But this was a sort of unreal threat in our minds – it existed, but after days, weeks, months of ranging about like little lynxes ourselves, I became a bit immune to the fear, relishing instead the fine prickling sensation that shimmered across the back of my arms and down my spine whenever a footfall would sound a little too heavy, a branch a little too loud in its crashing descent to the ground. The sense of risk was an elixir, and this world of filtered light and sweet‐smelling air was my freeing otherworld. A back door into a Narnia I could barely believe I had found. A realm so complex in details, so deep in secrets, and so rich in hideaways, that I thought that the adults were crazy to never venture in without a gun or a chainsaw. But I was glad they didn’t. It was a kingdom apart and solitude was necessary.

 
 

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