Saturday, May 28, 2011

The call of the mountain

There's a mountain behind my home. It's not particularly big or beautiful, as far as mountains go. But it forms a pretty backdrop against the crowded tangle of apartment buildings, utility poles and power lines in my north-eastern Kyoto neighbourhood.

From a distance, the mountain's cedar-covered flanks appear smooth and symmetrical, rising up to meet each other in the shape of a slightly lopsided volcano. At almost 900 metres tall, the mountain stands high above the rolling hills that form a coiled border around the ancient capital's edges.

I am magnetically drawn to the mountain, my eyes pulled toward it by some uncontrollable force. Maybe it's because the mountain is a paradox: always the same and constantly changing. It is electric green and sharp in the morning. It is purplish and soft in the evening. It hides under layers of fog in the rain. It hibernates in the winter and bursts with life in the summer.

But it's not enough to just look at a mountain. You need to climb it. To breathe its forest-filtered air. To hear its birds sing overhead. To sink into its mud underfoot. To reach its summit and to see nothing but mountains beyond mountains all the way to the horizon.

The reward for all that effort is not to feel as though you have conquered the thing but to feel humbled by it -- to surrender yourself to the realization that you are nothing more than an insignificant speck on a tiny planet in a vast universe whose mysteries we know very little about. But to also feel, with unwavering certainty, that we are connected to everything and everyone. This is the gift the mountain gives us.

Mountaineer and philosopher Arne Naess calls the view from the top of a mountain "philosophically important." He says the smaller you are in relation to the mountain, the more intensely you feel that you are part of it. "You get greater. You get on par with it. You get to feel good with it. So, the tinier you are, the more in some sense you are together with something great and, therefore, get something of this greatness" (from The Call of the Mountain).

This feeling of greatness, of feeling an intense oneness with nature, is what drives me to climb the mountain behind my home. I suppose it's the same feeling that has been driving people into mountains for centuries. My mountain, Mount Hiei, has long been considered the home of demons and gods. It has been the subject of poems and books. It has sheltered warrior monks and inspired marathon monks -- monks who run the steep mountain trails for seven years straight in search of spiritual enlightenment.

Many scientists have studied this human connection to nature but few have explained its importance as eloquently as biologist E.O. Wilson: "Wilderness settles peace on the soul because it needs no help; it is beyond human contrivance" (from The Diversity of Life). He argues there is a human need to have a deep connection with the natural world. It's a hypothesis that feels intuitively true. It also feels increasingly important as our urbanized, globalized and industrialized world continues to view nature as something to tame, conquer and exploit in the name of unlimited economic growth.

Somewhere along the way we deluded ourselves into thinking of nature as something disconnected from us. But nothing could be further from the truth. We are nature. We are the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink.

"We did not arrive on this planet as aliens," writes Wilson. "Humanity is a part of nature, a species that evolved among other species."

Being in the mountains reminds us of that irrefutable truth.

The less we identify with nature, the more quickly we will allow the crowded tangle of apartment buildings, utility poles and power lines to creep up and swallow the mountain whole.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Early Spring in Rural Ontario

I stand amid a cluster of trees on my grandparents’ farm,
a 10-year-old girl pretending not to hear
the voice of my mother as she calls to me
about dishes in the sink that need to be washed.

I hide in the trees that border the garden,
desperate to stay outside a little longer.
The ground is wet and I’m drowning
in a pair of black rubber boots that belong to my grandfather.

The trees stand in uneven rows,
their veins dripping sap into aluminum buckets
that hang on metal taps bored into their trunks.
(A few days from now my grandmother will boil the sap on the stove,
and I will sit transfixed at the kitchen table,
watching maple syrup being made.)

I stick my tongue in the spout
and am surprised to discover
the sap tastes slightly sweet.
I unhook the bucket from the tree, wrap my lips around the rim,
tilt my head back and drink the whole thing,
a 10-year-old girl pretending not to hear
the voice of my mother as she calls to me
about dishes in the sink that need to be washed.

-- Sarah Marchildon

Friday, May 06, 2011

In defense of Jersey Shore

I watched George Stroumboulopoulos interview Rex Murphy the other night. At the end of the interview, George asked Rex what his guilty TV pleasure was. To my surprise, Rex said he wholeheartedly and unabashedly loved Jersey Shore.

I was floored. Here was one of Canada's sharpest and most accomplished political commentators coming out of the closest to confess his fond feelings for the debauchery of the Shore. A man known for his love of literature was publicly admitting that he also enjoys watching a bunch of gorilla juiceheads getting jacked, dodging grenades and creeping in the club.

All I could think was: I'm not alone!

Embracing high art does not mean you have to snub low art. I love books and I love Jersey Shore. Rex Murphy proves it is possible to appreciate both Shakespeare and Snooki. So why is this such a difficult concept for some people to wrap their heads around?

I once told a friend I was a fan of the Shore and she acted as if I had slapped her in the face.

"But, but, but," she stammered. "Your lifestyle is the complete opposite of their lifestyle! They're so stupid. How can you watch that garbage?"

Because it's funny. Because it's fascinating. Because it's dark. Because you don't have to be stupid to enjoy the stupidity of it all.

We all know a triple-fudge brownie is bad for us but that doesn't make it taste any less sweet. It's the same with Jersey Shore. It's junk but it's delicious junk.

To be fair to my friend, my lifestyle really is the complete opposite of the one enjoyed by the Shore cast mates. I don't tan. I don't club. I don't creep. I don't drink to the point of inebriation every night of the week. I don't have fake hair, fake boobs, fake nails and fake eyelashes. I am not attracted to guys with big muscles and small brains. And I most definitely would not be DTF with Vinny, Mike or Pauly D (and even if I was DTF, they'd probably think I was a grenade so it's out of the question on all counts).

Rex Murphy defends the Shore much better than I ever could. He explains that the environment of our common consciousness is television and the Internet. And, like it or loathe it, Jersey Shore is part of our collective consciousness.

"I mean, you don't have to want to marry Snooki to watch it," he said. "But as long as you're aware of it, at least you know the world you're in. But this idea that you seal yourself off in some purist castle and read Descartes and Kant and snub the world, it's idiocy! And as I often say in this kind of context, Moby Dick really is a great book and you really should read it more than once but you shouldn't read it every day. It's a bad habit." (Source: George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, interview with Rex Murphy, May 3, 2011)

In other words, it's all about balance. A little bit of Shakespeare, a little bit of Snooki. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Thoughts on a bittersweet election

Let's get one thing straight: Stephen Harper may have won a majority government but the majority of Canadians did not vote for Stephen Harper.

The majority of Canadians (more than 60 percent of us) voted against Stephen Harper. The Conservative Party did not win a majority government because the majority of Canadians support the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party won a majority government because the majority of Canadians split their vote on the left.

The numbers in this election tell a very important story: 39.7 percent of Canadians voted Conservative; 30.9 percent voted NDP; 18.8 percent voted Liberal; 6.1 percent voted Bloc Quebecois; and 4.5 percent voted for something else. That means more than 60 percent of us voted against Stephen Harper. The majority of us voted for change.

But we shot ourselves in the foot. We split our votes between the NDP and the Liberals. And, in turn, the NDP and Liberals canceled each other out and sent votes to the Conservatives. In the riding of Scarborough Centre, for example, the Conservative candidate won with about 13,400 votes. But if you combined the votes that were evenly split between the Liberal and NDP candidates in that same riding you'd end up with more than 23,000 votes against the Conservative Party. In the end, this vote splitting is how the Conservatives built their majority.

Still, it was a momentous night for both the NDP and the Green Party. The NDP made a huge leap to second place, winning more than 100 seats and forming the Official Opposition. The Green Party now has a seat in the House of Commons for the first time in Canadian history. This is huge. And it is very exciting. I'm elated to know the NDP will hold Harper accountable on social justice issues. I'm overjoyed to know the Green Party will be in the House of Commons to speak up on environmental issues. I feel like shaking a bottle of champagne and spraying it all over the room.

Watching the election results come in was quite the wild ride. I was shocked to see Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff lose his seat to the Conservatives (I was sure he'd win by a comfortable margin). I was also shocked to see the destruction of the Liberal Party and the collapse of the Bloc Quebecois. Of course, you can't write either party off entirely. Parties crash and burn and rise again. In the 1993 election, the Conservative Party dropped from a 154-seat majority to just two seats. But they managed to claw their way back into power. There's no reason the Liberals can't do the same thing.

So where do we go from here? I think the main challenge is for Jack Layton to be an effective Opposition leader. He has to make sure the "orange wave" keeps surging forward, especially in Quebec. He has to make sure the party's popularity stays high.

Because we now have a majority government, we won't have another election until 2015 (election law dictates that a majority government has a four-year mandate to govern). So we're stuck with a Conservative majority for the next four years.

In the meantime, I think we need to talk seriously about merging the left. A recast NDP that includes Liberals is probably the surest way to defeat Stephen Harper in the next election. I don't want to head toward a polarized two-party system like they have in America but we have to do something about all of this vote splitting.

The next four years will be a critical test for the NDP. If the NDP and the Liberals decide not to merge, then Jack Layton is going to have to do a bang-up job as Opposition leader. He is going to have to convince Canadians that he'd be a better prime minister than Stephen Harper.

Stephen Harper just has to continue governing the same way he's been governing all along -- disrespecting the democratic process, tightly controlling the message, restricting journalists' access to information, ignoring the environment, trashing our international reputation, freezing foreign aid to Africa, cutting corporate taxes, buying fighter jets, beefing up prisons, loosening environmental regulations, and generally just putting competition ahead of compassion.

The deeper Stephen Harper corkscrews us down into this cesspool, the better Jack Layton is going to look. Maybe we'll be ready to elect an NDP prime minister four years from now.

The election may have ended tonight but the real work begins tomorrow.