Breakfasts and Breaths
9 September 2019

Goderich, Ontario-15km’s

Running on a treadmill is to jogging outside what Oasis are to the Beatles, mostly plodding, with the occasional flourish of brilliance. However, as a runner, cooped up on a laker for days at a time, I try to run a minimum of 5km’s a day, to prevent the cobwebs from settling in. This means that today, as we are tied up in Goderich for a load of wheat, I’m like a collie that’s been housebound for a week and I’m off like a shot the second the screen door opens.

​Christ but it’s good to be upright! To have this complex range of movement, this lean, efficient form. To run beneath crisp, blue skies on a warm September day. I’m on a wooded trail leading upwards that is taking me inland away from the lake. I cross an old rail bridge high above the Maitland River that shimmers like a jeweled belt beneath me and then I’m back amongst the trees. I’m startled by sudden movement on the path in front of me. A garter snake slides into the foliage. I remember my family were visiting a friend’s cottage many years ago when I was little. There was an older boy who caught a small snake like this one. He gave it to me, and it slithered magnificently around my arms and hands and through my fingers like a sort of living cat’s cradle. Then it was my sisters turn and, its patience exhausted, it chose instead to bite, three times up the underside of her forearm. I recall the outline of its perfect little jaw tattooed in pinpricks of red for only a moment before the blood began to trickle and she started to howl. The boy snatched the snake and threw it to the ground and mashed its head in with a stick, then he flung it into the trees. Later that day I was chasing the dog and I came upon that snake’s lifeless body dangling from a low-lying branch like a deflated balloon. Over 35 years later, I still feel a burning shame when I think of this incident (shame at what happened to the snake, not my sister obviously).

​Some time ago, I found myself in a tiny enclosed harbor on the coast of Labrador, at the wheel of a 21foot zodiac with two other shipmates, amid a pod of seven humpback whales feeding on a school of krill. All around us these massive creatures were breaching with their great jaws a-gape. One of the whales appeared sickly. It had a yellowish complexion different from all the others. It was constantly flanked by two other whales, as though they were protecting it, or helping it to the surface to feed and breathe. At one point a 65foot whale came up behind us and as its head drew abreast of me it rolled slightly, exposing its saucer-sized red eye. It was so close I could have leaned over and touched its barnacled skin. I am not exaggerating when I tell you it lingered there a moment and took me in. ​

It looked into my eyes, and I into its.

There was intelligence at work there, in our exchange, in its communion with me. I felt something like grief swell in my chest. Then it gently swam away.

​There is no language invented, no syllables have ever been uttered which can come close to approximating how I felt at that moment. I think James Joyce has come closest when in the final paragraph of his staggering novella The Dead he describes his protagonist’s soul as swooning slowly. I believe that is what occurred. My soul swooned.

​Ironically, I’ve worked on three films that dealt with whaling in the 19th century. I have read extensively on the subject for research purposes. I know how to throw a harpoon and the ideal spot to strike on a cetacean. I know how to rig a flensing platform from the shrouds of a sailing ship. I trained for weeks rowing a whale boat up and down the Thames, in the English Channel and eventually in the Canary Islands. How funny fortunes sleight of hand can be.

​I am on the last leg of my run and I’m feeling good. I can smell manure from the fields that surround this running trail and it takes me back to summers in England as a boy. I come across signs for a ‘Dunlop’s Tomb’ and divert from the trail to follow them. Soon I’m standing in front of the grave of one Tiger Dunlop, atop a hill in a quiet copse of trees. According to the plaque he was a Scottish émigré, a writer and woodsman and a veteran of the war of 1812. A man of local repute. What a spot he came to rest in.

​Old Dunlop gets me thinking that there are only a finite amount of breakfasts and breaths before I too will succumb to the relentless progress of the clock. That a time will come when these skinny pegs of mine will no longer bear me and I’ll be unable to run, hop a fence, climb a ship’s rig, do a pop shove-it on my skateboard, take stairs two and three at a time.

​I’d like to be buried at sea. In the North Atlantic, on a stormy day. Betwixt and between the two continents I have called home. There is an ancient Greek epitaph which reads ‘WHEN I SANK, THE OTHER SHIPS SAILED ON’. That’ll do nicely for me. Weary of the works of men, I’ll ltake my long rest down there in the deep where the hidden wrecks loom in that endless dark.

Uninfluenced by the rigid dogma of the light and the moons exacting discipline.