Thursday, July 23, 2009

My modern life and pictures from the road

People drive at the speed limit in Nova Scotia. Some even drive below the speed limit. Where is your sense of urgency, I sometimes want to scream at the car ahead as it leisurely rolls along the winding, hilly, barely two lane wide roads. Don't you need to be somewhere right now to get something done right now?

Apparently not. And by the end of the week, 80 km/hour is fast enough for me as well.

On the second last day of the trip, we overnight in a place called Sherbrooke. It's just meant to be a stopping place between Louisbourg and Halifax but on the day we arrive, we notice there is a living museum set up at one end of town. It depicts a typical Nova Scotian village from the mid 1800's. I used to have no time for this kind of thing. What's the point? We live now, not in the past. What's the point of playing make believe like it's 1850?

The next morning, we sit in the parking lot beside the anachronistic village debating whether or not to go in and walk around. We decide to not waste our time. We'll just drive straight to Halifax. They'll be more interesting things to see in the city. We pull out of the parking lot and drive through the village past the blacksmith, the general grocer, the post office, the drug store, the barber shop, past all the quaint restored period homes. As we're about to turn onto the main road leading to the highway out of town, I realize that we'll end up in Halifax too early to check into our hotel. Not that it matters but for some reason that's cause enough for us to turn around and head back to the village to use up some time there.

All the people in the village are in their olde tyme clothing. All the buildings have been well-preserved or realistically restored to accurately represent the period. The blacksmith's shop is cluttered with crude looking hand made tools. The drug store is full of brown bottles of herbal extracts and tonics. The tailor's has bolts of rough wool fabric and wooden measuring devices and big clunky, though sharp looking, scissors. It's all a pretty museum and at first I'm thinking that's all it is.

We walk into the print shop. There is a woman there working on the printing press, printing recipes. She stops when we enter and says hello and starts to explain the process. She shows us the heavy machine she is working, how the pedal she is pushing works the gears which drives the rollers across the ink plate, picking up ink then rolling across the typeset forme, depositing the ink and then the forme is pressed down on the card and the card is pushed back out with the recipe for apple crisp printed on it.

The weight of that machine - it must be three or four hundred pounds at least. All that human energy, time and effort, all those gears turning and all those levers and big chunky moving parts, all to produce one little recipe card. I could've done the same on my Canon inkjet printer in seconds with the press of a few buttons instead of the hours it must've taken the woman at the printing press to set everything up and the hours it'll take to clean and put everything away later.

I like my inkjet printer. It's an efficient piece of plastic and rubber and bits of exotic metals and it can do more than that old iron printing press could ever do. Resumes, charts, photographs, no problem. Printing press couldn't even touch that. Modern technology is a wondrous thing.

In another building, some women are making yarn. The recently shorn wool from Edward the sheep who lives a couple of houses over, has been gently washed once and I can still feel residual lanolin on it and there is still a lingering hint of the animal's scent. One woman takes a clump of it and picks out the remaining entangled non-wool bits, little pieces of twig or weed, and then pulls apart and fluffs up any matted bits of wool. She then cards the wool to align the threads and then feeds it steadily onto the spinning wheel, adding to the yarn already there. Another woman there is talking about the dyes she uses. Dyes made from lichen scraped off the tree in the front yard producing a beautiful amber or the root from some plant out in the field producing red verging on purple. She shows off the final product, bundles of brightly coloured yarn ready to be knit but these colours won't last, she says. They'll run and after a few washes, they'll fade.

I think about all my clothes made of nylon and polyester and how they never shrink, how the colours never fade, how they never seem to wear out. It's so easy now to throw out last season's shirts and go to the store and pick out something new and stylish right off the rack. So much cheap clothing that never disintegrates made by some unknown labourer on the other side of the planet and transported here to this very store, to this very rack in front of me. How fortunate am I to be living in this modern world.

In the pharmacy, a woman is making hand cream. She slowly melts beeswax in mineral oil, gently stirring it over an open flame, careful to not let it burn. When that is done, she pours it into a bowl of rosewater and borax and the mixture turns thick, almost like a cake mix and she continues to stir making sure the emulsification is thorough and consistent. She pours the cream into a jar and sets it aside to let it cool down. She invites us to test one of the open jars of cream and I scoop out a little and apply it onto my hands. It works well enough.

A lot of effort, though, when it's so much easier just to walk into any drug store and be inundated with dozens if not hundreds of choices of creams, oils, moisturizers, each with their own special chemically produced scents and each perfectly consistent within their batch having been precisely produced by industrial sized blenders and mixers and bottling equipment. No flies in my ointment thanks to twenty first century manufacturing processes.

I walk through the village and everywhere I turn, I see people doing things the traditional way, the hard way, and I keep thinking, modern technology is a wondrous thing. It makes my life so easy. It keeps me in comfort and in good health. It affords me the ability to eat exotic and gourmet foods, to travel, to have a forty hour work week with weekends and vacation and paid sick days. It makes home ownership a possibility. It makes cheap and easily available the most amazing forms of entertainment we have ever known.

But the most peculiar thing about all this, perhaps, is how all our technology removes us from our humanity. Technology helps us forget that we are inevitably, physically connected to the planet. It sells us a fairy tale telling us we can ignore our history, our nature. We can easily throw away yesterday by changing the channel or hitting the delete button. We can live in the bubbles of our own minds and imaginations without having to deal with the realities of weather, disease, labour. Technology allows us our lifestyles so far removed from the earth we still stomp upon.

This little make believe village defies all that. This village lives closer with Earth. Sheep then wool then yarn then sweater. How natural is that? Mix some wax, oil, water and borax to make gently scented cream. How simple is that? Push some gears to ink some type and then press onto paper. How clear is that? Not like me hitting a keyboard, clicking a mouse, sending impulses to a computer - assembled in twenty different countries made from materials from twenty more - which then deciphers those signals through chips and wires and software and immediately letters and images appear on a monitor to be sent to the printer or other computers via underground cables or a router in the room or satellites in space all dependent on the electrical grid powered by dug up coal or natural gas or atomic energy or converted solar energy.

Spinning yarn is archaic but I admit I'm fascinated by it, the feel of the raw wool, the waxiness, the smell, how it all so naturally weaves onto the yarn, how it holds the dye colours. The printing press is cumbersome but it is more beautiful than my desktop printer will ever be. The handmade hand cream is too much work but it is warm and soothing. The cast iron oven is way too difficult to use but the fresh bread does smell delicious against the slight scent of wood smoke. The unelectrified woodworking shop must be hard on the body but the chairs that the carpenter makes are graceful, comforting and comfortable and will last until the wood itself disintegrates.

Sheep then wool then yarn then sweater. Born in the latter half of the last century, I can't remember a time when things were that straightforward, simple, close to Earth.

Would I trade that life for mine? No. Like almost everyone else, I am a creature of habit and my habits give me my sense of security. I can't let go of this modern life but somewhere along the way, this modern life got me lost.

A week ago, the first day in Halifax, we were at the Citadel. On the hillside, a dog walks by. It's a four month old Great Dane. It's pulling on the leash trying to get to the next very important thing. Its owner gives the leash a tug, trying to teach the pup to heal, but the pup ignores the leash and keeps pulling, getting more excited as he gets closer to his goal. The owner gives up on the heal command and commands the pup to sit instead. The pup sits. The owner is pleased. Control at last. She is making headway in civilizing the pup.

But that's a lie. The pup can never be civilized, it can only act civilized, just enough to more easily fit into the plastic injection moulded framework of our modern lives. What a dog will always be is something primitive, cumbersome, difficult and yet more comforting, soothing, beautiful than anything we can manufacture with our most modern of super technologies. A dog will always touch the earth and in doing so, brings its owner closer as well.

Our dogs anchors us to the planet reminding us that regardless of how much we ignore our planet and abuse it and pretend we are godlike over it, we are still earthbound and connected. My dogs remind me of what I lost, reminds me of a life, closer to Earth, I never had.

And that's what I learned on my summer vacation.


Ian said...

Absolutely stunning photos.
Enjoyed all the other stuff posted while you were away.
I was sure that Mabou dog was going to hitch a ride with you.
Wouldn`t it be funny if the owner of that dog came across your blog and left a comment.
Sounds and looks like you had a great holiday.
Your photos make me want to get in the car and drive to Nova Scotia.

Christy said...

Wonderful post and gorgeous photos.
Thank you

Fred said...

Hi Ian, we flew to N.S. then rented a car there as I was on a limited vacation schedule. East coast Canada is beautiful, just as magnificent as any place on the planet but for some reason very few people know about it. The Cabot Trail is, I think, the best coastal drive anywhere and if you're into breathtaking landscapes, Gros Morne in Newfoundland is fabulous.

Plus, East Coasters tend to be super friendly to the point where they wave at you as you drive past them and at first you think you're in the Twilight Zone or something but then realize you're not. And even though you may obviously be a tourist, no one tries to rip you off. The water's safe and there are no insect borne, deadly diseases to worry about.

Anonymous said...

Fred, I love your sentiment that "regardless of how much we ignore our planet and abuse it and pretend we are godlike over it, we are still earthbound and connected. My dogs remind me of what I lost, reminds me of a life, closer to Earth, I never had."

Hope you retain some of that inner peace for a few days before you get caught up again in the Big Smoke. Stella and Rocky will help...

Beautiful photos.

Lynda said...

Thanks for sharing your vacay thoughts and pics with us, Fred. I miss Nova Scotia - travelled there a lot growing up. And the Cabot Trail! Good times.

I lived in Edmonton for 7 years and they also drive the speed limit or slower. I miss that place.....


Fred said...

Yeah, I'd move out there if I could figure out what to do for work. I don't think I'm seaworthy enough to be a lobster fisherman.

Lynda said...

LMAO!! Just for that comment, I think you need a pic of you dressed as an east coast fisherman! LOL!!

I watch the Deadliest Catch and just watching them catch crab makes me sea sick, lol!

Fred said...

Isn't crab fishing supposed to be one of the most dangerous jobs? Water's cold and stormy, someone falls in, freezes and drowns before he can be recovered or something like that.

Lynda said...

Indeed it is, Fred. But the money is so amazing, they risk their lives for it. Crazy stuff.