Walking in the Dark

This post is about the most recent of the 2-3 hour ‘contemplative wanderings’ that I do near the end of each month.

In the early hours of evening, at this time of year this far north, it’s already been dark for a while. But it’s not raining, or windy, or foggy, so I make my way down the elevator and head outside. Here, in the city, a flashlight isn’t essential, as it was when I lived on Nex̱wlélex̱wm, so I have purposely left it behind.

This is the hour of after-work joggers, some of them sporting headlamps or reflective tape on their clothes. It’s the hour of dog-walkers, and late commuters, and weary night-shift workers. Drawn to the sea, I walk towards the eastern edge of Burrard Inlet (səl̓ilw̓ət — “tsuh-LAYL-wut” in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ local First Nation language).

After my recent post on our “sense of scents”, I’m hoping to see whether the darkness allows me to exercise my non-visual senses. Will I be able to smell səl̓ilw̓ət’s salt water, and remember it? Will it then strike me, the next time I’m near, differently from the rich green smell of Hoy Creek, which I often visit, and which I’ve just passed? Will I ever be able to map the emotional landscape of these smells? Is there a language of smells, a language that can’t be spoken, a language in which that smell could be related to that feeling, the way a major seventh, or a sus4 chord, relates to that feeling?

I’m walking alongside rows of hedges and riverside trails, but I’m not able to discern much in the way of scents, even when I briefly close my eyes and try to concentrate.

And then a guy walking a beagle passes by going in the other direction, and the dog stops the guy it’s taking for a walk, in order to sniff. I slap myself on the side of the head. Of course! I utter a greeting to the guy, and nod to the dog in thanks for the lesson.

When I stop walking, and focus, and pay attention, I really can smell the differences from plant to plant. But it’s strange and frustrating — I have no language with which to distinguish and remember these scents. Perhaps if I knew what the names of the shrubs and trees were, I could at least ‘tag’ the smells with the names of their bearers, as I can now with cedars and lilacs. But I am totally unpracticed at this — I can no more make sense of these scents than I can make sense of the conversation of the people I passed a few moments ago speaking — what? — Mandarin or Cantonese or Korean? Japanese even? I have no idea.

How is it even possible to ‘remember’ anything if you have no taxonomy, no ontology, no words for it, I wonder? I recall scents from even way back in my childhood, when I’m re-exposed to them. “That smell” means “that precise place” or “that thing that happened” or even “that person”. It all comes rushing back. But we have no words for it — for the Cardiff Bridge Street smell or the listening-to-Gymnopédies-with-Joanne smell. Perhaps there is no need for words for it.

As I continue to walk, I am a bit surprised at the number of people, mostly women, who say words of greeting to me as we pass in the darkness. Since I moved here I’ve not noticed that very much. What’s changed? I am smiling, but that’s not unusual for me, especially when I’m walking. Is it because it’s dark, so it’s a safety acknowledgement, like the gentle ting of bicycles when they are passing you on multi-use paths?

And then I laugh. It’s because I’m not wearing a mask! For the past three years I’ve defaulted to wearing one, even outdoors when I’m in busy places. They were acknowledging my unmasked smile, along with my eye-contact and brief attention to them as our paths crossed. Nothing more meaningful, and nothing less human, than that.

There are, of course, people who don’t meet your gaze, who shrink down and look away and hurry past.

That gets me thinking about what it must be like to live a life of constant precarity, constant unease, constant wariness, or constant struggle. A life in the shattering aftermath of trauma. A life in never-ending fear of the reappearance of an abuser, or another horrific war. A life full of the the shame and dread of not knowing where the next meal for you or your children will come from, or the next fix, or where you’ll sleep tonight, and tomorrow night.

No wild creature, I am convinced, would ever put up with such a life — having known a better life, it would be too far down for them to even contemplate putting up with it. They would skulk away, lie down quietly and gracefully and just let it end.

What is it that drives humans to go on, no matter how ghastly their lives? Is it hope, or is it just the only life they know and the only life they can imagine? Are we all domesticated creatures like Lucky the dog, willing to put up with almost anything once we get used to it?

I sigh. The older I get, the more I realize that I know nothing. I wonder if my walking in the dark is a metaphor for where we are, we humans, now, always, scurrying around in a sea of unknowing. Wild creatures live in a world of wonder, while we, allegedly homo sapiens (twice), live mostly in a world of dissatisfaction, anxiety and bewilderment. Is this what all our ‘knowledge’ brings us?

As I reach the long arm of the ocean, and descend down the steps from the always-noisy road to the sand-and-pebble shore, I discover that last month’s king tide damaged the boardwalk across the edge of the inlet. There’s yellow tape everywhere, so I can’t even get close enough to smell the ocean, or what the ocean becomes in its transition to rivers and lakes. So I sit on the park bench quietly and listen to the ducks. There could be thousands of them out there; it’s too dark to see.

On the way back, I find myself walking behind two little girls with (I suppose) their mothers. The girls are dancing and singing and spinning around holding small flashlights in their hands, illuminating everything around them. “Aha!” says one, “You can’t avoid my gaze.” The other asks whether they can take the riverside path home instead of the “boring” roadside sidewalk. The mother is dubious. “We can show you the way,” the girl replies, in superhero voice. “We can see anything even far away, so we can protect you.” And then, shining the light from below her chin to eerily illuminate her face, she adds: “We have TASERS!” “Whaaaat?” shouts the mother, as I make my way by them.

I’m sort of glad I won’t hear where that conversation is going as I pass out of earshot.

It’s quiet then, for a while. From my treadmill routine, I’ve started to walk fast, about 7 km/h, and now I come up behind another couple, I’m guessing in their late teens, walking in the same direction. They’re speaking in urgent, hushed tones, and the young woman is pressed up against the guy as they walk. I can’t make out what they’re saying until the woman suddenly throws up her hands and says, in a loud, exasperated, grief-filled voice:

“All I want is to be able to curl up with you every night when we go to sleep, and wake up in your arms every morning, and spend all day loving you and being loved by you! Why is that so hard?… Why is everything good in this world impossible?”

I am briefly stunned by this bravura performance, and have to restrain myself from giving her a raised fist salute and shouting “Right on, sister!” Instead, as I pass them, I smile and nod to the woman, and give her a ‘thumbs-up’.

And for the rest of the walk home I am haunted by her questions. Has there ever been a time in human prehistory where that was how we lived, perhaps back in the days when we were pre-bonobos living in the trees? Was life, in those times of abundance and balance, such that we could simply reach out and grab a fig or some other nutritious food, and then sink back into the arms of the one we loved? If that were so — if it’s not just a fantasy of starry-eyed paleontologists and paleoanthropologists — then where did we go wrong, or was our trajectory from there to here just one of tragic but necessary evolutionary adaptation to ecological change?

Instead of going straight home, I head first to the neighbourhood bistro for a matcha latte. The place is jammed, so I grab a seat and eavesdrop for a few minutes. The group at the next table is talking about the crows dive-bombing from the top of their apartment and then soaring back up again. One of them was repeatedly dropping a pebble and then swooping down at incredible speed and grabbing it in its beak, and then repeating the exercise over and over. Having witnessed this often, I smiled.

There are a lot of anthropocentric explanations for why wild creatures play — mostly relating to their use of play as ‘practice’ for serious real-life situations. But biologists who have carefully studied wild creatures insist this is a false myth.

As I wave goodnight to the hardworking, gentle boss of the bistro, I wonder why crows play. I wonder if they do it just for fun. I wonder if they do it because that is just what crows do with their large brains and abundant leisure time. I wonder why they have migrated dramatically to the cities over the past 50 years, to the point more live in cities than in the countryside now — just like us. I wonder why, in each city, they mass each night (except in breeding season) in enormous, crowded, raucous roosts of thousands of birds, and then return miles to their far-flung homes each morning.

I wonder why there has to be a reason for anything, or if there even is a reason for anything — perhaps reasons are just placeholders, inventions of the brain, misleading us into seeing, and sharing, patterns where none really exists.

Perhaps there isn’t even a reason why “everything good in this world is impossible”. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I’m just standing here in the dark, looking up at the moon, and wondering.

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5 Responses to Walking in the Dark

  1. Dave Pollard says:

    A couple of readers have asked me to create a category or archive of these month-end “mindful wandering” posts. So here it is.

  2. John Reed says:

    Wonder sweet wonder……..and gratitude. Much appreciation for you David and the crows!

  3. David Beckemeier says:

    Enjoyed. And dare I get perhaps all “Jungy” here and say you coming across that couple and hearing her “performance” seems like synchronicity.

  4. Peter says:

    Dave, once again, thanks for taking us along on your peripatetic meanderings! I only wish I was there to join you, and engage in dialogue on your many questions….but I guess we do that here, vicariously…..

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