If home is where I go when I am asked in the relaxation exercise to imagine myself in that place where I feel safest and happiest and most at peace, then it is a ten-by-three metre platform of weathered-grey and rotting two-by-six spruce boards nailed to a pair of cedar timbers each a metre in diameter and floating (with the help of as many sawed-off chunks of foam pallet as I have had the weight and strength to force underneath) on a Shield lake three metres in depth for most of the length of this dock, which is held perpendicular to the shore by steel cord attached from the foot of one cedar timber to a white cedar and from the foot of the other to a white birch. Here, at night in spring, summer, or fall, under the stars, or the moon and stars, or in the pitch dark, it makes little difference, though windless is best, with no one aside from my family in a five-kilometre radius, shining the beam of a six-volt lantern down into the water, I pace and muse, sometimes for hours, and I have come home.
The other day I was pleased to learn that dry land was not created by evaporation of the primeval sea but vomited up out of the Earth’s mantle through a fault in the basalt crust. The substance of the continents is not revealed sea bed but of an entirely different nature, a recycled and ever recycling mixture of weathered and disintegrated granitic materials. The sea bed–tougher, denser than granite, fifty times younger, and relatively unsedimented because it is constantly passing under itself and so being more drastically renewed–is basaltic. Granite is a light rock, lighter than basalt, coarse-grained, a real floater. It lies like thick scum high on heavy basaltic plates, which themselves are afloat upon–when they are not sinking back down into–the flowing upper mantle of the Earth.
When I step off my dock onto the rock I am stepping onto another floater. I am pleased to know this because for as long as I can remember it has been obvious to me that floating is the essence of life.
I have two houses, 3400 kilometres apart, a prairie bungalow and a cabin on the Canadian Shield. Each is a good distance above sea level, the Shield cabin at 430 metres, the prairie bungalow higher, at 670. Where the prairies are was once the bottom of a shallow sea, but the prairies are not always either low or flat. My cabin on the Shield sits on a jumble of till and boulders of granitic gneiss. Twelve thousand years ago these rocks were approximately three kilometres under ice, in fact four times over the past million years they have been under ice, and three times in the past two billion years they have been as far as twenty to thirty kilometres under rock. The Canadian Shield at the point where I live on it is the roots of the third of three successive mountain ranges that have pushed up on that spot, the first a little more than two and a half billion years ago, the last just over a billion years ago, all now eroded away to a half-billion-hectare saucer of rock no higher than 1500 metres around its visible rim. ‘Visible rim’ because like most of North America the prairies where I live are on the Shield, only separated from it by two vertical kilometres of clay and silt and other sediment, much of it the remains of those three mountain ranges.
In the prairies I float two kilometres above the pink granite of the Shield, somewhere high in the midst of what, nearly two billion years ago, was also a mountain range, which eroded away long before the sea rolled in from the west (no Rockies yet to stop it), long before the accumulation of those two kilometres of sediment. On the Shield I stand on rock that at least three times in three billion years has been buried and–thanks to the rock above it having eroded away and so not only exposed it but removed a great weight–three times has floated to the surface.
Christ advised us to sink our house in rock because a house in sand will be swept away, but this is a metaphor for faith. Here in the physical world everything will be swept away and has been many, many times. Faith is one answer. Another is to do what you can to avoid being buried too soon on this planet of landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteorites, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. I think our lives must be as brief as they are relative to geological time because like insects we need all the chances we can get to adapt to cataclysmic change.
My own experience is with floods, they are what terrify me like nothing else in nature, and for me it is always a nightmare of floodwater that is rising in the darkness beyond the perimeter of home.
The house I grew up in was a yellow-brick storey-and-a-half built on a marshy outwash near the edge of a broad river valley a few hours drive south of the Shield. This river, which by August was invariably a trickle among bleached rocks, only eleven thousand years ago was a raging sluice of glacial meltwater coursing south into the vastness of Lake Iroquois, now receded to Lake Ontario. When I was a child I would push through the beach-sand grass of the back field and stand at the edge of a clay bluff and stare down at the narrow brown meander of that river twenty metres below and marvel that it could ever have covered a valley floor at least a kilometre across, because it had, again and again over thousands and thousands of years. Even in my own lifetime it had. The October I was seven a hurricane came through, and the next morning my father brought me to this place and I saw it: the valley floor a uniform expanse, the buildings of the farm that yesterday had stood on its banks now islands in a brown sea. And later he took me into the sludge at the bottom of the main street to see where the old concrete bridge had been washed out and the river a headlong surge only just returned inside its banks, flowing past at tremendous speed, carrying with it the destruction of the valley: uprooted trees, drowned animals, sections of building. What shocked me–and it went with the outrage, the insolence of the height the water had risen in defiance of the most familiar features of our village–was the force of the moving water, the force of it but also its terrible opacity. This was not water as in a tumbler or bathtub but water the colour of clay, more liquid earth than water as I had ever thought of water. This was water gone hellish, water capable of displacing, of reducing to its own state of muck and disorder even space sanctioned by adult consciousness and adult industry.
Our house sat too high above it to be flooded by the river, but our house was flooded more often than the river left its banks, because every year or two in the spring or when the rains came hard, the sump pump would break down or fail to keep pace with the rising water, and I would sit on the basement landing and watch it well and spread silently–oh the terror of that silence–across the basement floor and creep up the steps below my feet and up the concrete walls and pass into the recreation room with its paperboard panelling and its raised floor and warped tiles and its stink of permanent damp, and climb the furnace, dousing the coals, and my fear was that it would never stop. When I was very young it did not occur to me that it could not possibly flood more than the basement, and I would imagine it filling our house to my bedroom ceiling, and the fact that this was my parents’ house would make no difference to it. And I would sit on the cellar steps and under the light of a bare bulb from the ceiling I would watch the water engulf and gently lift the objects in the basement that could float–wood, inflated toys, plastic things–and bury the rest under its glass black surface, and I knew that in the world there are the things that float and there are the things that do not.
It makes no sense to build basements in country like this, to sink houses into the moving frost-heaved sea of the earth, which can only create disaster below, cracking and crumbling foundations, leaking into them, filling that pointless subterranean space with damp and cold and miasmal gases. Really this is land that demands flotation. Its first nations understood that, why can’t we? What is this need to sink foundations that can only be violated? Surely this is old root-cellar thinking, or something perverse in us, or a Bible metaphor lapsed to literalism. It is certainly not appropriate in a country whose land mass is nearly half Shield. If you have no basement it is not going to flood. My prairie bungalow has a basement–actually my office is down in it, all my work is a dredging operation–and though the foundations are solid, and though it is on high well-drained ground (on the edge of a river valley), and though I have had weeping tiles put in because I am neurotic about this, when it rains a lot there is dampness in the lower floors and walls, and in the past, before the weeping tiles, there have been occasions of standing water. On the Shield my cabin sits on rock and it can rain for days and there is no fear, because the rain flows off the roof to the rock and over and among and through the rock and down into the lake. There is nowhere for it to go but into the lake, which is rainwater in a bowl of rock. When the lake level rises, as it does in the spring, it will pour south before it floods the cabin. Pour south off the Shield as it has here for more than two billion years.
And so I float.
I know that this is about survival, a compulsion given shape, like most, by early experience. This is what I do, how I reckon, against the terror. And I realize that beyond death the terror is the terror of the unknowable, the unarticulatable other. It is, as I say, as much the darkness of the flood, the obscuration as surely as the sweep of it, that for me holds the terror. And fascination. My main fantasy as a child was unearthing–or discovering at the bottom of the sea–a treasure chest of puppets; was unearthing multi-tiered highway cloverleafs buried like Pompeii, and what could be made of what was found at this level, and this level, and this? And as an adult it is pleasing to me to know that I am floating at the roots of vanished mountains when I am not floating two kilometres above the Shield, somewhere high in the mountain range that once stood here, floating as high above the Shield as above the bottom of what, a billion and a half years later, after those mountains eroded away, was the sea. You stand on prairie and you think, Yes, of course this must have been the sea. But on the prairie you also feel you have been half lifted up into the sky, and you have been, and the land itself is now the swelling main. And at night at my cabin on the Shield I pace my rotting, foam-bolstered ten-metre floater for hours into the night, telling myself stories, and I shine the beam of my six-volt lantern along the muck and rock bottom three metres down and I watch the night-time follies of crayfish fighting over wisps of offal, and I watch the minnows and the snapping turtles and trout and pearly clamshells and catfish and leeches and water snakes and tadpoles and all the submerged inhabitants of that world, unearthed by my light. And this is home. Down there with them, the living and the dead. Floating here.
“Defence of Floating,” Writing Home: A PEN Canada Anthology. Ed. Constance Rooke. McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1997. Pp. 152-58.