MY FRIEND Harry was somewhere in his late 70s when he died. He didn’t know the exact year of his birth because his records were lost in a fire on his reserve when he was a baby. When Harry departed for the Happy Hunting Grounds (politically incorrect or not, that’s how my native-Canadian friend always referred to the hereafter) I lost more than an old friend; I also lost a storehouse of Canadiana. After a day’s fishing, Harry and I would sit out on his cottage verandah drinking beer, and shooting the breeze until bedtime. I did most of the listening because Harry loved to reminisce and I, being about 40 years his junior, loved to hear about things that happened long before I was born.
Whenever Harry heard his fellow cottagers recalling the good old days, those, so-called, simpler times, he would just nod without comment. But I always knew what he was thinking, as he listened to them recounting happy memories from their youth. You see, Harry’s childhood memories were a far cry from that of his neighbors. Their good old times, as Harry told it to me, weren’t all that great for people like him.
In those olden times that Harry’s neighbours recalled through a nostalgic mist, only the culture of certain groups was protected. The culture of other groups, especially Harry’s own native culture, was considered of little account by the rulers of the land, at that time. One tragic incident that befell Harry’s community in those simpler times was the day the Spoilers came to his village and destroyed its Sacred Hill.
Harry had such bitter memories of that incident that he must have told me about it 100 times, over the years. I think of Harry’s Sacred Hill whenever some controversial environmental issue, like dumping Toronto’s garbage in Kirkland Lake, Ont., makes the evening news.
Here is Harry’s tale. The tribal elders always spoke of the Hill in reverential tones. It was, they said, a storehouse of tribal memory, that for 1,000 years before the white man came, was revered as the final resting place of the great warrior spirits.
As a child, Harry had been taught in the church school, that to everything there is a season, and Harry considered the Hill, a place for all seasons.
Shining in its pristine coat of winter white, the Hill had an aura of mysterious splendor about it. Then, with the coming of spring the Hill would explode in its annual rebirth of glorious daffodil yellow. As spring gave way to summer, Harry never ceased to marvel, as the Hill turned lush with clover. But it was in the fall, when the shedding maples turned that mystic place of ancient spirits into a blazing blanket of red and gold, that he understood why the old ones considered it a sacred place.
None of the villagers was prepared for the shocking event that occurred on that dreadful day the spoilers descended upon them, looking for all the world like monstrous beasts of prey, on their huge belching machines.
It took those vandals only two short days to obliterate the Hill that had stood there from the time of the million buffalo. Their Hallowed Hill, the old ones explained to him later, was destroyed because it was not sacred to the spoilers.
As Harry grew up, he learned that nothing, in fact, is sacred to the spoilers of this earth and, therein, he warned me, lay the seeds of potential tragedy for all the sacred places, for all the moraines and wetlands, and for all the animals that need them, and for all the people who love them.
But like the book-burners, who can torch the pages, but not the words they
contain, the spoilers who desecrated Harry’s Hill failed to destroy the tribal memories and myths that were buried deep within it. They failed because the old ones swore to teach the young ones about the Hill and its heroes for as long as the grass grows, for as long as the river flows.
The good news is that the eco-vandals are destined to fail everywhere because, at long last, we are waking up to the fact that folklore alone is no substitute for nature’s missing parts. So, whether it’s in defense of a moraine outside of Toronto, or of the rain forests in Brazil, we must be on eternal guard against the Spoilers in our midst. William Bedford is a Toronto freelance writer.