Copyright © 2020 Miles Ducore
Moving Parts: Chapter 1
By: Miles Ducore
At roughly four billion years, the Canadian Shield is a vast swath of primordial volcanic flows and worn-to-near-nothing mountains, as old as anything on the face of the Earth. Centered and emerging from under Hudson Bay and sweeping in a great clockwise arc from northeast Greenland to the Northwest Territories, the Shield is the exposed core, the craton, for the entire North America Plate, and extends from well above the Arctic Circle to southern Ontario and large tracks of northern New York State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. My older brother Carl once likened it to the hardened skeleton of a huge and ancient geologic organism, garnering and shedding pieces of the Earth’s crust as it wanders and lurches across the planet’s surface. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t particularly work for me since I actually live here, and have hiked and canoed this area a long time now. I’m the one who returned home after college and stayed. I married and raised my children here, and buried my parents here too. Carl, on the other hand, moved to Vancouver where he spent a career studying plate tectonics and teaching geology, so perhaps he thought about all of this from the bottom up. Whatever the reasons, I’ve often imagined it more from a bird’s-eye view, though I flew over our property just once -- with my dad and Carl and Joanna -- when we were kids. Joanna settled in Boston, and I sometimes wonder if she thinks about it at all.
In Ontario, outside the towns on the Shield’s ragged southern rim, a dense arboreal wilderness supported mostly on spruce, birch, oak, maple, and hemlock has taken root over millions of years and millions of square miles, interspersed with uncountable lakes and streams and all the accompanying wildlife. Occasional stoic moose and wayward black bears, haunting grey wolves and red foxes, single-minded beavers, otters and fishers, badgers and wolverines, geese, ducks, loons, wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks and ruby-throated hummingbirds, magnificent bald eagles, cricket and wood frogs, solitary snapping turtles, rat and hog-nosed snakes; a universe of ravenous buzzing, creeping, fluttering, crawling, jumping, and water-skimming insects, spiders, and other bugs; walleye, bass, trout, great pikes and pan fish of every sort, and all the rest -- some hunted or meddled with to near extinction -- survive either hidden or in plain sight in the surrounding waters and woodlands. Others have been driven hundreds of miles away, where we might forget they ever existed; and then, in our ignorance and indifference to food chains, habitats and the ambiguous ways of the natural world, the species inexplicably left unchecked to propagate like rabbits, or worse, like white-tailed deer.
The last glacial period, about 20,000 years ago, plowed off and then washed away nearly all the Shield’s topsoil toward the Prairie Provinces and the American Great Plaines and Midwest, so that rocky outcroppings of granite, gneiss, and a creamy, cinnamon-streaked basalt are scattered widely throughout the forests, offset by persistent and bothersome wetlands. A carefree afternoon walk through the woods, the radiant sun flickering through the canopy of a hundred million leaves, the lake chill stymied before it’s intruded even ten yards from shore, and before you know it you’re up to your knees in forest muck. So you learn to watch your step, pay attention to the vegetation and to the grade and elevation of the terrain; and you learn to appreciate the interplay of geography and geology that underlies everything around you.
Winters usually are snowy, some with month-long stretches of Arctic cold so clear and hard you can hear the snap of twigs as deer browse across the lake. It’s a cold that claws at the back of your throat and your eyes, brittles everything and makes everything shrink and crack. And summers -- too warm, too humid and yet somehow too short -- when everything expands again, warps and buckles, and the air is pungent with the moist scent of evergreens and decay. The region’s inevitable shifts between warmth and cold, between damp and dry, and between growth and decline often have felt not so much like cycles, but like swings of a long and erratic pendulum with its moments of great acceleration and then absolute stillness, as if an omnipotent and fickle hand could not leave well enough alone.
And like everywhere else I suppose -- but especially if you call it home -- this area has its charms. For me it’s the auroras, the shimmering, ephemeral, blue-green-yellow waves and streaks that swim and ripple across the night sky. Watching them as a teenager alongside my parents, the auroras gave me goose bumps and sent shivers up my spine; and I wondered if the ionized gases weren’t really alien spirits, rebuffed from entering our world. I knew better of course, but my mother thought it was a lovely idea. I still enjoy sitting out and watching them, even watching through the trees, their reflections scattering across the surface of Crescent Lake.
Where the Shield’s predominant surface rubble gives way to patches of arable soil, it is, according to an old social studies text, “a thin blanket of coarse, poor-draining and marginally productive stuff.” My mother, who taught high school math and Russian in Bracebridge and Gravenhurst, loved that description and quipped that, “If you replaced the hyphen with a comma, it could describe the people here too.” She was not a pessimistic woman, though at times she came off as terribly cynical; and she grew to love it here as much as any of us. But I know she was saddened whenever she saw wasted potential, more so when one of her own students would mistake an opportunity for an obstacle and turn away. She understood, as do most of us who live close to nature -- farmers, fishermen, and others -- that places can seep into your bones, saturate your spirit; and that they can shape you every bit as much as your upbringing and your genes.
Even today the year-round population here is sparse, anchored mostly by folks employed in logging, the paper mills, the quarries, and the mines. During the summers, when the “cottage crowd” arrives in droves, the area swells with these giddy, joyous, vacationing families, their SUVs and minivans, their boats and fishing gear, their dogs, their appetites, and their money. But in January 1958, decades before “Cottage Country” had been discovered -- or invented -- we moved from Livonia, Michigan to acquire and, we hoped, revive an aging, faltering summer resort a hundred miles or so north of Toronto. These days that same drive takes about five hours, what with the expressways; and southeast Ontario is more like an extension of “the States” and a lot less like an extension of Siberia. Back then however, once we got much east of Windsor, it was just two-lane roads that stretched forever through an ocean of trees that stretched even further. And despite my parents’ assurances, each hour of the drive deepened my childhood worry that we were leaving not only the comfortable suburban life I hadn’t fully experienced, but were offering ourselves up to a far-away and forested world that was completely beyond my comprehension.
My father drove a new, black, Ford pick-up with my older sister Joanna and me sitting up front and most of our belongings piled high and tied down tight in the truck bed under an army-green canvas tarp. My mother and Carl, and Henry our fat gray-and-white cat, followed in our rusting, navy blue Plymouth station wagon, also packed full. I know we must have stopped occasionally for gas and bathroom breaks, and I’m sure Joanna and I slept for long stretches, me sitting in the middle leaning into her and her left arm draped over my shoulders. That would have been a common enough sight whenever we drove a long way. There would not have been much conversation that first trip, and my dad probably spent time searching for the music of Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman on the radio. But I had just turned six and aside from the numbing blur of passing more trees than I could fathom and the relentless low gray clouds, I don’t remember much more about that drive than that it was dark when we left the house in Livonia and dark when we arrived at the lodge of Berner Brothers Resort. It had taken all day and it was very cold.
For eight-year-old Carl, whom Joanna described more than once as “Mom’s tow-head prince,” our move to central Ontario was an adventure. And Carl tried to prepare me with stories of how we’d be like the great explorers and pioneers -- Daniel Boone, Louis and Clark, Mackenzie, and de Champlain -- paddling canoes everywhere, cutting trails through the woods, and leaping across icy streams. I was too young to understand what Carl was talking about, but he made it sound like so much fun. My first few years in Ontario as Carl’s sidekick little sister, romping over the resort grounds with him, with our friends, and less often with Joanna, bonded us to one another in ways that endure even now. But Carl could not know how cold it would be there that January, or how the snows blowing off Lake Huron and Georgian Bay would keep us penned up in the lodge for weeks on end, except for attending school and church.
And for Joanna -- tall, thin, freckly-pale, with a mop of dirty-blond curls, but not yet the slender, almond-eyed beauty -- you would think my parents had pushed a harpoon through her chest. She would turn twelve the following Valentine’s Day, and for months she had protested that we should not move, that my parents could not make her go, that they shouldn’t sell the house in case they changed their minds, that they were ruining her life, that they should wait until the end of school in May, that it was unfair to take her away from all her friends, that it was stupid, that they were traitors, and -- finally -- that Mathew Cronin would forget who she was and she would “never fall in love with anyone ever again.” It would only have been trite if it hadn’t also been the sort of pathetic declaration Joanna made once or twice a week.
I didn’t know who Mathew Cronin was, but Carl did because Mathew’s younger brother Peter was in Miss Pearlman’s third-grade class with Carl. Peter told Carl how Mathew and Joanna would sit on his front stoop after school, hold hands, and “talk about stupid stuff.” Peter said that Mathew was a big dope and that my sister was too. So when Joanna whined, and cried, and pleaded, and argued, and begged, and stormed off to our room, slamming the bedroom door hard enough to knock a picture off the wall in the hallway, Carl told me again what a big dope Mathew Cronin was. The two of us laughed out loud until we heard Joanna scream, her anger collapsing into anguish. And we heard Mom tell Dad how his mother, Grandma Morgan who had died the year before, had come back to life now in Joanna and was having another tantrum in the girls’ room. My father nodded his head in tacit agreement. And when the tears subsided and Joanna, exhausted from crying, settled down, he walked to the end of the hall, setting the fallen picture to the side along the way, let himself into the bright yellow and white bedroom I shared with my sister, sat down on my bed and talked to Joanna for a while.
Carl had no interest in Joanna’s problems, not then and almost never, and he wandered off to find something else to do. But I was curious about what they were saying, and sat on the floor in the hallway outside our room listening to my father’s well-reasoned perspective on adolescent boys, popular and unpopular girls, misunderstood and absent-minded teachers, and the sometimes difficult world of adults. My father’s voice was a muted baritone that I can still hear and sometimes can almost feel resonating in my chest, and he had a way of talking to each of us -- but especially to Joanna -- that helped calm us, allowed us to consider events the way others might see them, took some of the sting out of having to apologize, and made accepting an apology easier. Eventually, I would poke my head in and ask if I could get a toy, or a game, or a book. And then, sensing that their talk had run its course, I’d ask if Joanna would read to me. My father usually ended these sessions with, “It’ll be okay;” and it was until the next time. It was a routine that probably lasted another four or five years.
Of course Joanna was completely wrong about falling in love. I think every summer from the age of 12 to 20 she fell for one, if not more, of the waiters, cooks, camp or maintenance staff we hired for the season. For the most part these were just local guys -- kids, my father called them -- in their late teens or early twenties who wanted summer work to help pay for college or for a car they could use to escape to Toronto. If they were looking for girls at Berner Brothers Resort, they were eyeing the waitresses and camp counselors we hired, not Joanna. Not many were so dumb that they’d screw up a decent summer job by messing around with an owner’s daughter. But Joanna would put on a summery dress or a pretty blouse and shorter skirt -- along with a ton of makeup -- and invent reasons to loiter around the lodge kitchen or the dining room if she thought that might draw her beau de jour’s attention. More often, what she got was Aunt Maggie’s attention, which meant Joanna could end up peeling potatoes or chopping onions. “Don’t get your eye makeup tears in my onions,” I heard Aunt Maggie call out one morning, and the whole kitchen went berserk. The guys usually were oblivious to Joanna’s stalking, or they’d been warned off soon after they started. Years later, our stories at family gatherings about Joanna “on the prowl” made for some of the funniest conversations; even she would be in hysterics.
Miles Ducore is a retired packaging engineer and member of the Barrington Writers Workshop. Born in New Jersey, he attended college in the Midwest, including the Iowa Writers Workshop. He and his wife have lived in Palatine, IL for more than forty years.