A few months after arriving in Mexico from the Yukon I was assigned to an archaeological excavation as an illustrator at the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilán.
Photo: Temple 33, dedicated to "Bird Jaguar" and his predecessor "Shield Jaguar", Yaxchilán, Mexico.
A few months after arriving in Mexico from the Yukon I was assigned to an archaeological excavation as an illustrator at the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilán. I started a journal, including the following entries:
April 20, 1978. I went with Roberto today to draw the bones in a burial at temple 33. It lay between the building and a three-metre tall stalagmite erected at the top of the stairway coming up from the plaza far below. Roberto began to clean the dirt from around the bones with a number-one paint brush, an ice pick and a pointed trowel. He cleaned the cranium, the vertebre, the humerus and other bones to make the position of the body clear for photographs and the drawing he asked me to make. We sweated, both exposed to the hot sun high above the Huitz and Ceiba trees spread out among and on top of the many buildings of Yaxchilán. The Usumacinta River, which also forms the border between the Mexican state of Chiapas and Guatemala, meandered in an oxbow along the edge of Yaxchilán towards Piedras Negras and Palenque, other cities of the Classic Maya period. Bomapack, with its well-preserved fresco murals, was due west.
I drew a map of the bones at a 1 cm to 10 cm scale, with both a top and a lateral view. Later analysis of the cranium and the humerus indicated that the buried man was probably low in the social hierarchy of the Maya, and may have been sacrificed as the tomb of a ruler was backfilled. Roberto told me that “More information about the Maya can be gained from two or three burials than the great building before us”. After the drawing was done, Roberto slowly collected all the bones, separating the skull and teeth, vertebrae, pelvis, arm bones, fine hand bones, legs and feet into separate plastic bags. Now the excavation could continue.
April 30, 1978. Digging over the last few days revealed a wall at the same level as the base of the stalagmite, suggesting that it was part of an older structure beneath temple 33 and its elaborate roof comb, stuccoed walls and carved doorway lintels dedicated to the life of Bird Jaguar. According to the date hieroglyphs, he and his predecessor Shield Jaguar, had ruled Yaxchilán between 708 and 790 A.D. The archaeologists had already removed the remains from several other burials, some with a large ceramic plate covering the head and others with small ceramic heads representing the nine Maya gods of the night.
Ernesto, Roberto’s senior assistant, was in charge when the workers, themselves Maya from the distant town of Oxkutzcab in the Yucatán, opened a cavity in the ground. He got down on hands and knees, flashlight ready, and peered into the hole. He could see, stretched full length among jade beads and two large obsidian blades, the bones of a ruler. As it was near 2 pm, quitting time during the heat of the summer months, he covered the opening with a stone and returned to camp for lunch. Shortly afterwards, he announced to Roberto, “I’ve found the tomb of Bird Jaguar”. He and Roberto then went running up the building stairs to have a look. That night, Roberto brought out from a secret stash several bottles of wine.
I wrote a full description of the excavation as part of my assignment, handed in along with photographs and drawings that became the property of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Without these contextual elements, Roberto told me, the jade, gold and pottery artefacts themselves had little archaeological value. Still, when work stopped in the afternoon, the excavation was covered with plastic and logs and two armed guards posted until the archaeologists could return in the morning. Arturo Romano, the director of the department of Physical Anthropology at the INAH, was visiting the site at the time and analyzed the bones: male, 25-30 years of age at the time of death, strong build, with three teeth intentionally modified (one with an inlay of jade). Among the human bones were two bones from the retracting mechanism of a tiger’s paw. Two obsidian blades, each 16 inches in length, were found with the body, one across the chest and the other between the legs. A stinger from a Manta Ray, heavily encrusted with jade, also lay across the chest area. Jade beads, more than sixty in all, lay near the ankles, wrists, neck and head. Next to the central tomb were the remains of a women who was probably the rulers’ wife.
Drawing: My rendering of Building 33, in profile and (below) one of the artefacts (a conch necklace).
I used my journal, along with a description of how the Maya reckoned time, to create a book of ink drawings of Mayan hieroglyphs and stone carvings as a wedding gift for my brother Steve and his bride. A carbon copy of the thirty page manuscript I prepared for the course is all that remains of the writing, but the accordion style book still sits on my brother’s shelf.
Drawing: "Bird Jaguar" (right) conferring with his predecessor "Shield Jaguar".
Falling in love with the details
My arrival in Mexico from the Yukon on December 30th, 1977 was heartwarming, and helped establish a love for the people and country I carry to this day. On the plane from Montreal I happened to sit beside Lilia, a young woman who had been part of Mexico’s Olympic gymnastics team during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She was returning home from visiting friends in Montreal. My own success as a gymnast had peaked in High School when my brother Casey and I won the City of Ottawa team championship. Three years later I still had great respect for the sport. Lilia invited me to join her and her brothers Arturo and Alejandro at their parents’ home for dinner and a New Year’s Eve ritual: eating ten grapes while counting down to midnight. I returned afterwards to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México on Mexico’s famous Zócalo. My parents had treated me to two nights in this 5 star hotel, to cement my pledge to re-engage with the world outside of Dawson. They were afraid Casey and I would become stuck in Dawson, a place they considered isolated and lonely. I did not share their worry, but I loved the coloured lights and grandeur of the Zócalo.
I quickly became engrossed in what for me were the exotic sounds and sights of contemporary Mexico. I took a three-month intensive Spanish language course every morning at the Institute, and spent the afternoon at the market in San Miguel trying to figure out what people were saying and doing. This undoubtedly helped me learn the language quickly, and put me in a good position to be accepted into the Institutes’ unique program at Yaxchilán. I was one of about 10 American students and faculty selected to travel by train to Tenosique, a town in the south-east corner of the state Tobasco. It was the jumping off point for a short flight on a small plane into a grass airfield at Yaxchilán.
We gathered first at the Central Train Station in Mexico City, loaded down with supplies for a two month stay. The gear was too much for the baggage handler at the Central Train Station so half was left on the platform. As the most fluent Spanish speaker in our group (with only three months of study under my belt) I was asked to stay with the remaining baggage while everyone else boarded the train. Twenty minutes later the baggage handler returned. He was agitated as he loaded the remaining bags on his cart. I remained calm. We moved down the platform. The train began to move. The baggage handler tried to match its movement. I responded, too. The train steadily gained speed, and departed the station.
This was the first train I ever missed, a scene repeated many years later when I tried to board a train in Mumbai, India only to find that I could not squeeze myself into the coach door while also hanging onto my luggage.
The next day I boarded the train for the same 24 hour journey and was greeted on the platform in Tenosique with great fanfare by faculty and students desperate for their bags and supplies. Oddly, they had arrived only 10 hours before me. Their train had jumped the tracks shortly after leaving Mexico City, and they had spent hours being shuffled from one train to another until they finally arrived at their destination.
Life at Yaxchilán involved a level of discomfort not dissimilar to camping out in the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon. We slept in hammocks under a communal palm roof and ate rice and beans for every meal. The tall Ceiba trees and other tropical vegetation protected us from the direct rays of the sun, but the intense humidity drove us every afternoon into the Usumacinta River for relief. Guatamala was across the river. I knew nothing of the country’s violent politics but was told by one of the young archaeologists of a headless body spotted floating down the river. The river was also the point of access for thieves who came to the archeological site from the Mexican side to steal artifacts. One incident ended in a shootout and one dead attendant. This was described in an issue of National Geographic about Ian Graham, an American illustrator from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. I met Ian at the site, and watched him do illustrations of unusual hieroglyphs decorating a recently discovered circular stone altar more than a metre in diameter. He worked the morning hours, then returned at night with a flashlight to cast shadows on the fine details where adjustments might be needed. The throne was later buried to preserve it from the heavy rains, and thieves. I was enthralled by the experience of an ancient culture and the tropical setting where it flourished, was abandoned, and then became engulfed by nature.
Photo: Altar documented by Ian Graham in 1978, and then buried at the site.
Drawing: Building 18, my first assignment, Yaxchilán, Mexico, 1978.
My introduction to Mexican culture and history was later aided by Gerald, a history teacher at the art school in San Miguel, and my roommate for a time. He taught me about the great revolutions of the 20th Century, and the radical politics of his life as a student in the UK. A Mexican born of English parents that had settled in Mexico after the Second World War, Gerald told me he was a Trotskyite. This was a term new to me, but one I learned to respect for its practice of principled action. Gerald told me of how, before coming to Mexico for his first job as a history teacher, he and other Trotskyites regularly went toe-to-toe with fascist skin-heads demonstrating on the streets of London. The resolve in his voice was evident as he described the importance of confronting fascism directly and forcefully, despite his frail physique.
Gerald was already an alcoholic when I met him, and meticulously planned each evening’s drinking session at Mama Mía, San Miguel’s most frequented live music and restaurant venue. For example, to stave off dehydration from over-drinking he set out a tall glass of water next to his bed before heading out, a tip I used myself on a few occasions. We were fast friends, and I learned much from him about Latin America’s revolutionary spirit, even though his own days of activism had begun to sink into a fog. When my wife Debra met him on a visit to San Miguel in the 1990s, his most valuable possessions had just been removed by a collection agency, including several paintings by a well-known American painter we had both dated. He was broke, but still happy with a glass of wine in his hand.
Photo: Gerald Baker, historian, Trotskyite and friend.
A painting of no interest to the collection agency still hung on a wall at his house when we visited. It was one of mine, a brush and ink of a scene on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The collection agency knew nothing of the painter, an art student who left behind the artist’s life before any shot at true name recognition, so they left it behind. I remembered the painting, however, and the story it told about the months following my departure from Yaxchilán. I had completed the illustration assignments and set out on a summer break to get to know my new-found country. To do this, I purchased second-class bus tickets for towns or cities a day’s ride away, and jumped off the bus whenever it stopped somewhere that looked interesting. After visiting the local market or hanging out in the main square, I would purchase another ticket to complete the day’s journey. Even on an art student’s savings I could afford to do this without hesitation, bringing me into contact with many small communities and isolated places along the byways of central and southern Mexico.
One village square I visited had a small crowd of people gathered around a busker telling stories and performing tricks with a large and menacing iguana beside him. He would announce once in a while that the iguana was also a magician, and that it would soon perform a trick. I stood nearby, waiting and enjoying the man’s tricks and stories for quite some time as people came, dropped coins in his hat and moved on. After more than an hour I realized that the iguana was not going to do a trick of its own but rather was a bystander just like me. Whenever the man mentioned the upcoming trick, however, the crowd murmured interest, dropped money in the hat and watched as long as they could. I imagined I was the only one to wait, like Vladimir or Estragon in Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, thinking the trick was imminent.
By the time I reached Lake Atitlán in Guatemala I had already been to San Juan Ixcoy, a village in the highlands above Huehuetenango. I met a blonde, Swiss woman on the bus making its way up the twisting road, and invited her to share a bed in the tiny hostel available in the village. She agreed, even though she was older than I and could more easily afford her own bed. We witnessed a procession through the village that stopped for a few minutes at each house to share the blessing of the religious statue four men carried on a wooden litter. I saw many similar processions in Pajapan, Veracruz where I would latter do my PhD research. We conversed with a young priest who recounted how the military had been disappearing people in what I later came to know was the beginning of a systematic campaign of terror against the highland Maya. The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from the 1980s through to 1996, reaching its peak under Presidents Ríos Mont and Lucas Garcia. Gerald’s teaching of the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état and years of CIA support for the military dictatorship had prepared me with some background, but I was shaken by the strange mix of quiet resignation and resolve in the priest’s voice. I wondered if he was a Trotskyite too, and what became of him in the years that followed.
My Swiss companion and I returned together to lower lands, through Chichicastenango and on to Lake Atitlán. Confident in my boating skills, I rented a dugout canoe so we could explore the villages around the shore of the lake. It took us three days, marvelling at the diversity of people and products in each village. Some villages cultivated Nanche (Byrsonima crassifolia), and Pitahaya (Stenocereus), small tropical fruit native to Central America. Others grew Sisal (Agave sisalana) from which they made rope. Onions were a speciality in another village. All had small fields of corn, squash and beans, the “three sisters” of Mexican and Central American cuisine. We learned that sellers from each village gathered once a week in the market at Panajachel, each distinguished not only by their wares but also by distinctive clothing from home villages. In one village, the men wore red and white striped pants cut-off below the knee like pirate attire while the women wore a solid colour skirt and precisely patterned heavy cotton blouses cinched tight with a waist band. Each village was different, and each villager the same, boy or man, woman or girl. When asked, we explained to a fisherman curious to see gringos piloting their own boat that we were circumnavigating the lake. He responded with, “Yes, you are going around the world.” It certainly felt that way to me, and was in fact a world of human and natural diversity.
Drawing: A view of the volcanos around lake Atitlán, 1978.
We spent our last night together in San Pedro, a village that even in 1978 was a prime destination for “hippies” backpacking their way through Guatemala. In the late afternoon, we witnessed a small group from Quebec strip naked at a point of land along the shore and jump into the lake. A fisherman in his canoe was livid at the sight, and shouted at them until they returned to shore and donned their clothes. I spoke with him later, sensing his hurt at being so deeply disrespected by the show. By contrast, the bathers seemed perplexed. Were they not in a land where people are close to the earth, native and natural in every way, including their nakedness? Their cultural ignorance and arrogance could not have been more evident.
The details of cultural difference were particularly evident in the food of Mexico and Guatemala, a theme that later became important to me as an anthropologist of food producing communities. I learned an important lesson from Steve Larson, an American man with a Phd in psychology and a penchant for peyote and the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff. He told me of a trip he made from San Miguel to a highland village in Chiapas, Mexico, and daily encounter with the farm family he lived with for several weeks. Every morning the man would sit down to a breakfast of beans and tortillas, and eat enthusiastically. His wife packed him a lunch for mid day, also comprised of beans and tortillas. When Steve sat with him for the evening meal, and watched the joy of the man as he ate beans and tortillas for dinner, he couldn’t help but explain his own culinary practice at home in Phoenix, Arizona. There, Steve said, he found all kinds of foods from many different countries. East Asian dishes, Indian curries, Italian pasta, German weinerschnitzel, and British fish and chips were all ready at hand. His host listened carefully, using a scrap of tortilla to wipe the edge of the bowl clean as he finished his meal. “Very interesting,” said the man, “But, haven’t you found something you like yet?”
As my brothers will attest, after living in Mexico I came to like rice and beans, and for a change, beans and rice. Even today, these two items always satisfy.
My photographs from that journey, while numerous, are all a little cockeyed because while in San Cristóbal de las Casa in Chiapas I put a container of yogurt in the bag that also held my camera. Predictably, it leaked into the camera, the now vintage Olympus OM1 recommended to me by my Dawson friend Grant. The camera still took pictures but the mirror that permits the photographer to see through the lens directly was stuck. I could point and shoot, but could never be sure of what was in and what was outside of the frame. I had to use my knowledge of _f_ stops and shutter speeds to make the most of the film exposure.
Photo: On the church steps, village on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, 1978.
A Political Turn
Once I was back in San Miguel, and enrolled in various art courses, I got down to making art of what I saw and imagined, in many styles and medium as expected of art students still exploring their own voice. I made portraits of Mexican peasants drinking pulque, the fermented cactus drink of the high plains, and sketched views of the dry landscape. I made copies of the works of European and Mexican grand masters, in conté, pencil, ink and watercolour. The Institute’s printing studio provided the means to make lithographs inspired by José Guadalupe Posada’s illustrations using skulls and bones to convey satirical and socially engaged messages. I photographed police guarding the local jail, and a wizard. Some of the work was inspired by George Kraus, an accomplished American photographer teaching at the institute who introduced me to the possibility of constructed drama in photography. This stood in sharp contrast to the documentary style of photographers such as Robert Frank I had studied in Montreal and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Mexico’s most acclaimed photographer. Rather than revealing what is found in nature, at its best an approach to photography without artifice, Kraus used imagination and poses to create fantastical scenes. I never fully embraced his approach, but I did learn from him the subtleties of dodging and burning black and white prints in the darkroom.
Photo: Brujo, lakeside near San Miguel de Allende, 1978.
Outside of the art studio, I learned to weave on a hand loom, and dye wool using Cochineal, a red coloured dye extracted from an insect (Dactylopius coccus costa) that makes its home in cactus plants. I chose this dye because Gerald had taught me of its use by the Aztecs, and its export to Europe during the Spanish colonization of Mexico. In the 1500s, Cochineal was regularly traded on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Today, it has no stock ticker but demand for natural food additives and dyes has revived cultivation in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and highlands of Peru. .
Drawing: Copy of a European master, 1978. Gifted to a friend.
Before finishing my degree, I mounted an exhibit of 30 photographs for the Institute’s Galeria Conde, selling many of them at the same $25 I charged for water colour sketches in Dawson. They were framed by a local artisan in thin brass tubes used to make glass boxes. Money to mount the exhibit came from me posing nude for the Institute’s life drawing class, and gifts I received from my kind and generous parents.
Photo: "Union", lakeside near San Miguel de Allende, 1978.
Photo: Self-portrait, near Palenque, 1978.
Money was a constraint, so I jumped at an offer from Eleanor Millard to accompany her to Cuba as her translator. She was working in the Yukon as a specialist in adult education, and wanted to see a museum in Havana dedicated to Cuba’s 1961 Literacy Campaign. Che Guevara had asked Fidel Castro to make 1961 the year of education, laying the foundation for many other improvements to Cuban life that followed. In a few years, the campaign successfully lifted Cuba’s literacy rate from 77% to virtually 100%. Eleanor wanted to understand the significance of the campaign and see what Cuba was currently doing to support literacy. While no longer a political figure in the Yukon — she had been elected in 1974 as the youngest ever Member of the territorial Legislative Assembly and was the Minister of Education in the Yukon Government for a term — Eleanor was committed to working with the Yukon’s First Nations and other communities marginalized from the benefits of literacy. We knew each other from her frequent visits to Dawson.
Our two weeks in Cuba began in Havana on New Year's Eve, the launch of the anniversary of the revolution. We watched Fidel Castro's long speech on the hotel TV while sipping Jamaican rum Eleanor had brought from her father’s home in Kingston. In the following days, I made arrangements for us to travel to the Isla de Joventud, the second-largest Cuban island. It hosted residential colleges for youth from Angola, Namibia and Mozambique. Cuba’s ties to African socialist movements had begun a decade earlier, and involved thousands of troops in Angola. Cuba had a strategic influence too on Namibian struggles against apartheid policies imposed there by South Africa. Eleanor interviewed African youth in several schools, while I translated.
There were four or five large buildings at one of the schools, which had been a jail for political dissidents in Batista's time. The buildings reminded Eleanor of Indian residential schools, but the social structure was completely different. The residents came to Cuba voluntarily for free high school and university education. They were expected to work in Cuba for some time before returning home after their education. This might mean ten years away. They would work in the gardens and orchards around the school, up at 6:00 a.m., and study through the afternoon. They had their own student committee that ran the residence with strict rules written up on a large poster. We told them we were from a democratic country, and they responded saying they were too. The difference, they said, was that they contributed to guiding their country by working, not simply by voting in elections. Years later, Jacques Chevalier told me of his experience evaluating the Cuban component of a Canada World Youth program on civic and community engagement. The Canadians involved defined their civic engagement primarily in relation to individual lifestyle choices like recycling and volunteering. By contrast, the Cubans focused on the professional choices they made, including entering teaching and helping professions such as medicine and social work. I realized later that the two notions of politics and civic engagement, expressed by African, Cuban and Canadian youth, reflected very different ideas about democracy and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Activism can be scheduled, mainly for weekends and evenings, or it can be part and parcel of a professional life.
Eleanor’s progressive politics, and the socialist art on the streets of Havana, had a strong impact on me. So did the beautiful Latin American women that were also taking in the sites and nightlife of Cuba. While Eleanor took time on her own to visit the literacy museum, I travelled with an Argentinian woman to the town of Trinidad on the south coast. We had difficulty finding a hotel because we had strayed from the pre-paid rooms all tourists had to book before entering Cuba. Eventually, we found a vacancy on the edge of town, only to be awakened an hour after falling asleep. “Your time is up”, the hotel attendant told us, “move on or pay for another hour.”
Mexico stirred my sexual life as well as my politics. I had traded my Yukon plaid for the white Mexican peasant shirt, still paired with brown corduroy pants and thick leather belts, and introduced myself as a Canadian from Dawson City. The package was attractive. San Miguel, with its large expatriate community, two art schools and many language institutes serving travelling youth, was a sexually active community. Young American and Latin American women and men were open to and available for casual sex. Unlike most Mexican communities of the time, openly gay men and women were safe from harassment. The AIDS crisis had not yet started, and the ethos of the town still echoed the closing years of the sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s. By the time my parents came to visit for Christmas, a year after my arrival in Mexico, I had lost most of my earlier shyness. I was carefree, and hedonistic within the bounds of a quiet, friendly personality. The pleasure seeking, and relationships with women, did not, however, receive the attention to detail and constancy I gave to art and observation of Mexican culture. Quantity prevailed over quality. The paradox of youth wasted on the young, a phrase coined by George Bernard Shaw, seems so evident now.
Photo: Self-portrait, 1978.
My brother Casey was the focus of my parent’s attention by that time, with me nearing completion of a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from the University of Guanajuato through the Instituto de San Miguel de Allende, and my older brother Steve by then a licensed helicopter pilot. My father, retired from the Air Force and working as an Aviation Inspector for Transport Canada, invited Casey to join the rest of the family at my house in Mexico. Casey flew, while Steve, his girl friend Janis and their dog _Cabrón_ arrived in a Westphalia Volkswagon camper van. After a few days in San Miguel, we set off in search of sunshine and adventure. Our destination was a family hotel in Barra de Sontecomapan, Veracruz, a tiny Mestizo community on the Gulf of Mexico. As fate would have it, the hotel was a stone’s throw from the “fourth world” indigenous community my future colleague Jacques Chevalier and I visited years later (Chapter 4) and that became a touchstone for my Phd research. For our family vacation, however, the location proved inhospitable due to the constant rain of a _Norte_ blowing in from the gulf, driving us after a few days to the glorious highland city of Oaxaca. There we lounged around a hotel pool, drinking Margaritas and probing Casey’s interests. Eventually, they converged on the prospect of a career as a helicopter pilot. Casey followed through, and got very good at “long line” helicopter operations, dropping heavy loads in tight spaces for the Canadian Coast Guard.
From my parent’s point of view, the poolside in Oaxaca launched their youngest son on a path to success. The B.F.A. I was about to earn, which my brother Steve referred to as a Bachelor of Fuck All, also turned out to be an asset as it helped me get a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts ($4,623) to support my return to Dawson. In the spring of 1979, I headed north in an early 1970s Chevy Impala owned and driven by Carole King, a print maker I had recently met in San Miguel. She was originally from Chicago (no relation to the songwriter), and was willing to take me there after a stopover in Albuquerque, New Mexico to visit some of the world’s best printmaking studios. Later that summer she joined me in Dawson.
Push and Pull Forces
I remember my return to Dawson as a confusing time. I was excited but also daunted by the acknowledgement of the Canada Council, a prestigious funder of art production. I was unclear and unprepared to make art that was as political as my proposal, and Mexican art, had suggested. I’d seen something dramatic in the work of the Mexican muralists José Clement Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siquieros, but had no idea how the lessons from these long dead artists could be applied to life in the Canadian north. It didn’t help that all of the paintings I had stored in a riverfront shack in Dawson during my time in Mexico were destroyed by the Great Dawson Flood of 1979. I felt devastated by this loss. I was also challenged by the responsibility of being in a steady relationship, the first of my life. Carole had a lot of adjusting of her own to do as we settled into John Lodder’s cabin when he left town in the fall to tend to his trapline.
Carole was an accomplished printmaker, and was welcomed warmly by John Steins, who had just purchased an etching press and shipped it from Toronto to Dawson. The three of us set up a studio in a heated garage, and they got to work making wood cut prints, etchings and engravings. I focused on preparations for winter, including the purchase of a long extension cord to bring an electric light to John’s cabin from a nearby neighbour. I also partnered with a friend to set up a dark room in his house in town, and began to print negatives brought from Mexico and new images of the approaching Dawson winter.
The extension cord was not enough to cement the relationship, and by mid-December Carole was gone, leaving me with winter supplies for two. She struggled with the lack of running water or indoor toilet, but was truly frightened by a touch of frostbite on her nose and ears during a visit to Grant and Karen’s island home up river. She said she wanted to return to Chicago for Christmas, to get a break from the weather. After a long soak in a bath at her parent’s house, she did not return north. She wrote to me, wishing me luck with my efforts to document the life of people and landscapes of the north, and announcing that she was returning San Miguel de Allende. She lived there at least until the early 1990s when last I heard of her.
Photo: Carole, overlooking the landscape near the Tombstone Mountains, Yukon.
I stayed busy through the winter, skiing on the Yukon River, cutting wood, printing photographs and drawing. A stray cat arrived on my doorstep at John’s cabin, and stayed with me until spring weather coaxed it to wander off again. I joined John Steins and his partner Paula Hassard in a Bible Study offered by an evangelical minister new in town. Jack Sailor was charismatic, and led us in a close reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans. John was interested in learning about the faith underlying Bruce Cockburn’s recent conversion to Christianity. The Cockburn albums “Joy Will Find A Way” and “In the Falling Dark” were played repeatedly on John’s Sansui stereo. I approached the study with curiosity about the Bible, a text I had never seriously read despite my Scottish Presbyterian father and Irish Roman Catholic mother. It was also an opportunity for reflection. I was heart broken by Carole’s sudden departure and unclear about my future. Paul’s letter to the Romans intrigued me. It is much loved by evangelical Christians because it offers salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The core debate about interpretation of his letter, outlined by the minister, is the distinction between salvation through faith and salvation through righteous actions. Protestants, I learned, tend to focus strictly on the former, while Catholics balance the two paths, at least in theory. By the time we finished the reading, I came to respect the intellectual curiosity of Jack Sailor but did not experience Christ as John Lodder and Bruce Cockburn did.
Drawing: Interior, John Lodder's cabin and cat, 1980.
Looking back on it now, I realize that the memory of Paul’s letter may have stuck with me all these years for reasons of both religion and life purpose. My parents had resolved the contradiction between their religious upbringings, a tension so severe they eloped to marry, by raising their three sons in the Anglican Church. Scholars of religion will find satisfaction in this choice because Anglicanism, the religion launched by Henry the VIII because he couldn’t get the Pope to allow him to divorce, is the closet Protestants can get to the rituals of Catholicism and “the ancient church.” I was a choir boy as a child, and even held the incense burner during the church service. As I joked recently with my wife, I regularly drank the blood of Christ during communion.
As a young man living in Dawson, hurt by the failure of my first serious partner relationship and uncertain about my life purpose, Paul’s core question about the path of faith and the path of deeds might have weighed on me. I don’t remember any details that give a hint of how conscious I was of these forces at the time. I do know, however, that I was unhappy and that my art lacked the vitality and focus of previous work. Making political art was simply an idea I had, with no clear notion of how to turn that into good deeds.
In the spring, John Lodder returned to town and his cabin, so I bought a white camper van and started to explore parts of the Yukon I had never visited, taking photographs of people and cows at the Burien farm, goats at the Schmidt farm on the Stewart River, the mining town of Faro and mountains around Carcross, south of Whitehorse. An acquaintance of my friend Greg Skuce saw opportunity in my wheels and invited me to join him in a visit to a friend living in a tepee on the outskirts of Atlin in northern British Colombia. We drove the long, deadend road to this isolated community and spent a few nights in the tepee, marvelling at the beauty and grace that surrounded us. His friend, a blonde woman who to me looked more like an Amazon than a 1980s era hippie, had recently given birth. One sunny afternoon I photographed her, the baby and the dog, naked against bare rock, water and the mountains behind. While all of us lounged around a spring that bubbled up at the camp, a male moose emerged suddenly from the nearby woods. Its large upper body and full spread of horns balanced improbably on long, spindly legs as it casually loped towards the baby sleeping on a blanket. It stopped a few paces short, surveying the baby from above with what seemed like curiosity. The moment still lingers in my mind, as does the image of the mother slowly but resolutely moving towards her child and the moose turning and walking away. From that time to now I identify more with the moose than any other animal of the northern forest. It is a comical beast to some, but clearly at home on land and in the shallow waters of lakes and streams across Boreal Canada. I see them from time to time at Temagami, our family cottage in northern Ontario, and am always thrilled by their grace.
Photo: Amazon, baby and dog, Atlin, British Colombia, 1980.
Photo: Pond, Greenhouse, Tepee on the horizon, Atlin, British Colombia, 1980.
After returning to the Alaska Highway from Atlin, I came to a cross roads. Turn north and I would head to Dawson, a place with friends but also sadness over Carole’s departure and isolation from a broad and thriving artistic community like the one I had experienced in San Miguel. Turning south would take me to new and familiar places — a folk festival on Vancouver Island I’d heard about, my brother Steve now in Edmonton, and universities at my parent’s home in Ottawa. While my decision was not of religious inspiration as John Lodder experienced standing on the Yukon River shoreline around the same time, the question was similar: what shall I do with this one, wild and precious life? With no clear answer, I turned south. For weeks I toured around British Colombia, and eventually arrived in Edmonton in time to mount an exhibition of photographs at the Edmonton Public Photography Gallery and fulfil my charge to the Canada Council. I then stored the van in Edmonton and flew to Ottawa. By September I was enrolled in a photography course at the University of Ottawa with the famous Canadian expert in large format photography, Robert Bourdeau. By January I was doing a qualifying term to get into a Masters program in Canadian Studies at Carleton University. When later I returned to the Yukon for a summer job, it was to Whitehorse and a clear turn from art to anthropology. This field became my vehicle for deeds.
Photo: Artist at folk festival (?), Freedom 1980.