Saturday, 11 February 2012


In the fall of last year I took a trip to BC. I had a wonderful time visiting friends and family, especially once the stress of waiting for my visa was alleviated. What struck me the most about my visit, however, was how I never truly felt that I was ‘back home’ until I began the journey to Port Alberni.
Autumn at Sproat Lake
Home. It is a curious word for me, full of so many different meanings. It means Cambridge, East Anglia, and England. It also means Canada, Vancouver Island, and Sproat Lake. The restful, comforting feeling of being back where I belong begins when I see the mountains meeting the ocean from the plane window, increases with the first whiff of the fresh sea breeze, and then overwhelms me on the drive from Nanaimo to Port Alberni. This drive is usually made at night through the quiet mountain highway, with deepening darkness as we leave the towns behind and head out towards the lake. There is a chill in the air when we finally open the car doors, an instant of pure silence, then a rush of animals and humans converging on the car. Now I am truly home.

In the early morning, grey mist obscures the evergreens, dances in ghostly wisps along the river, and the scent of wood smoke lies heavy in the air. You breathe in, deep, and can sense the weather, snow or rain, in the purity of the air. The rain strikes the roof with a patter, runs through the evergreen branches like a waterfall, and drowns the view from the windows. Every day but Sunday I wake in the chill of a west coast autumn. The house feels damp, but not as damp as my flat in Cambridge. I’m awake just long enough to let a cat in, or out, and take a sip of water. I roll over. Some time later the furnace roars to life, the heating ducts release their peculiar morning scent, and the room begins to warm. That is when it’s time to get up. And, since I am in part a visitor, there is little that I need to do. I may offer to cook, may help with some light house or yard work, but mostly I curl up and read novels, watch television shows, or root out the various edibles that mum always has and that I never stock in my other life. On certain days I break this pattern and leave with mum when she goes to her office, so that I can run errands “in town” and visit with people. I see dear friends, I spend a lot of time with my Grandma, and if I am lucky I have time to drive by a few of my favourite places, time maybe even to stop for a minute.

Back at the lake, the fruit hangs thick on the branches. On a rare dry day the plums are ripe for picking, with enough to spare that even the bees have their fill. The success of the harvest is measured in the number of ice-cream buckets filled with fruit. After counting comes a careful division of bounty: some for the home, some for family, some for friends. The air carries the musky, plummy smell of fresh-picked fruit resting in cardboard crates. Near the garden, the green apples, which no one but dad likes, litter the ground and weigh down the branches. We make a mess of sorting them by picking the ground apples first, because we do not account for the ones that fall to the ground when the branches are cleared and thus have to sort the ground apples twice. The apples give no scent, but the garden emits the rich smell of the earth, and the grass breathes out its dew, and the air comes clean down the mountains and across the lake.  As I relieve the trees of their burden I thank them, and understand a little of St Francis’ ideas of our siblinghood with nature.

Slowly the sky darkens against the pine trees. The nights are cool and most days there is rain, so lighting the fires is not excessive. The stamp of booted feet, the thud of wood being thrown into a box, and the rattle of grating and stove lid—these are the sounds of my childhood. This wood heat is different from any other. It does not mask the damp, it burns it away and leaves you warm to your very core. The night’s chill seeps in around the windows and the scent of the cool air mingles with that of the warm fire. Evenings are a time of easy companionship until, one-by-one, we make our way to cool beds and the thick darkness of a country night.

As I pass my days on this visit home I keep smiling to myself, because I am thinking of my other home, the home waiting for me back in England. The life I led growing up in this small town is so very different, at least on the surface, from the life I lead now. I think of my husband, shaking hands with the Prince of Wales. I think of balls and formals, evening gowns and ever-flowing champagne, buildings older than the nation I hail from. I think of museums, plays, operas, symphonies, galleries.  Yet this return to the place of my birth, to the trees and the water and the mountains that are etched in my deepest being, is what grounds me back in myself. This return is what allows me to understand the person I am at now, because at every turn I meet the person I was. I walk through ghosts upon ghosts of myself, and that is why I smile, because I have gone farther than I ever dreamed, and then I have come back to appreciate all the more what I have left behind, have come back to temporarily alleviate the burden of this peculiar sacrifice. 

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