Up here in northern Ontario the hunting season has arrived. The evidence is unmistakable: a sudden proliferation of bright orange clothing, and, in the streets and roads, people talking excitedly about ‘sign’. Stripped of its ‘s’ and turned into a collective noun, sign stands for any evidence of an animal’s presence--scat, footprints, rubbed bark, a snapped twig--and in scrutinizing it, the hunter attempts to apprehend a narrative in the landscape: a story that will tell him what an animal has been doing and so, of course, where it might be. Like any decent novelist, the hunter is trying his best to engineer encounters, to reveal something otherwise hidden, to bring disparate lives into a brief--and sometimes fatal--moment of convergence.
It all reminds me of that literary hunter and tracker par excellence: James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo. In one of the novels in which he features--The Pioneers, I think--Natty comes upon a clearing in the forest, and surveying a nearby valley finds mingled there “scenes of nature, signs of men”. It’s a resonant and memorable phrase (one of my professors at university used it as the title for an excellent book) in which the ‘sign’ on show provides proof of human settlement and occupation, and hence the basis for a narrative about how people and nature interact in a landscape. In this forest, Natty the hunter has reluctantly--and often ambivalently--stumbled upon another kind of story.
It happens that I have written most of my fictional work about places--north western Ontario and north Wales--that are renowned for their natural landscapes and scenery. When people think about these places, they tend to think first in terms of scenes of nature. And so I’ve often found that my initial challenge as a writer has been to track down and discover that other kind of ‘sign’.
Last winter I visited my family’s farm in Wales for the weekend, to give my father a hand repairing an old dry stone wall. In one spot, where the sheep had waged a long and ultimately successful campaign of liberation, the wall was so tumbled down my father decided to take the remainder of it apart and start from scratch. Right in the middle of it we found an old shoe, by the looks of it a very old shoe indeed. My father and I both examined it.
‘I’d say that was probably over two hundred years old’, he said. I nodded. I’m no expert on shoes.
‘Why’s it in our wall’, I asked.
‘For luck,’ my father said.
‘What do you mean luck?’ I asked. ‘What’s lucky about a shoe in your wall?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘That’s just what they used to do. I remember my grandfather telling me how he remembered how people had done that once.’
In the time since I haven’t quite been able to either answer or shake those questions. Why a shoe? Why a shoe in a wall? Somewhere in those questions is a beginning. Finding the story in the landscape is the first step-- all you have to do then is figure out how to put on the shoe and make it.
Tristan Hughes was born in Atikokan, Ontario, and brought up around Llangoed, Ynys Mon (Wales), where he currently lives. Hughes is the author of three previous books, The Tower, Send My Cold Bones Home and most recently, Revenant. He was the winner of the 2002 Rhys Davies Short Story Award. Eye Lake (Coach House Books) is his fourth novel.
Comments herecomments powered by Disqus