I grew up surrounded by the wilderness on the James Bay coast. Our isolated community of Attawapiskat sits in the middle of a large area of mushkeg, swamp and tundra. We never had far to go if we wanted to see untouched forests or tundra. Our parents may have enjoyed the wonders of living in the wilderness all their lives, but in my generation, we were the first to experience a life that is caught between two worlds.
On one hand we had our heritage to live up to in visits to enjoy the land as our ancestors did. On the other hand we were thrust into a modern world with a million temptations that taught us to abandon any old world habits or ways of surviving off the land.
Even though we were surrounded by mushkeg, tundra, great rivers and a saltwater bay, a lot of the time I felt disconnected from that world. Our community had all the amenities of modern life, including a permanent home, electricity and a television set that plugged us into the entertainment world. We went to school where we were taught basically how to survive in this new world and even though we had easy access to the land our people inhabited for generations, many of us more or less lost our connection to it.
Life has changed a bit for me in the past few years. Probably the biggest change I underwent was coming to terms with alcoholism and addictions. This process brought about many unexpected changes that I continue to realize on a frequent basis. I lead a more quiet life now and I try to avoid too much chaos or confusion. One change that I am happy to experience is a rediscovered appreciation for the wilderness and the land.
At this point I am actually able to take long periods in my life to visit the land and spend some quiet time. It may sound totally boring to some people, but one of the greatest pleasures I have is to just sit in a comfortable spot away from biting insects and mosquitoes and just marvel at the forest. There is something magical about being surrounded by poplars, pines, cedars and birches as the wind blows through the leaves like nature’s chimes.
I always had a need to find a quiet place in the midst of my earlier chaotic life. I would escape the every day hectic activity of never ending excitement, anxiety and frustration to try to find some quiet moment by a river, a lake nearby or by the rapids a short distance from town. I enjoyed stepping off the treadmill and taking a break alone in the wilderness. The peace I found in the forest put me at ease and gave me balance.
One afternoon, sitting on a dock by a lake, I watched a mother Shee-sheep or a duck and her brood of five fully grown chicks approach. They walked up to my chair and stared up at me in anticipation of some food. It occurred to me that others on the lake must regularly feed these birds because they had no fear of me whatsoever. If these ducks had known how I was raised and what attitudes I had to wildlife they would have never ventured near me. At any rate, I fetched some bread and tossed them bits and as they circled me. It dawned on me that I was really appreciating the beauty of these birds in their colours, their sounds and movements. I was raised to view ducks as food mainly and that makes sense given my heritage.
We were taught back home to respect animals whenever we came close to them but we rarely had a chance to get close to any sort of creature. In fact, whenever we ventured out on the land and came close to a live animal, we were either on the hunt or we were at risk of being killed or injured by a frightened creature. As a matter of fact the only time I ever got close to any bird or animal up north was when it was dead. So my visit with the duck family was something very precious and new for me.
My ancestors had a special relationship with the land and its creatures. I am sad to say that much of this has changed and I see that some of us have lost our respect for the animals and the land. We see them as food and prey and a part of a recreational practice. Elders tell us that it is up to us to take care of the land and to respect all of the life Mother Nature has to offer. So, Meegwetch to the duck family for helping me connect to Mother Nature on a perfect sunny day by the lake. I hope to see them again soon.