I’m standing at the height of Kakabeka Falls in Thunder Bay, Ontario, watching how the Kaministiquia River tumbles 130 feet into the gorge it’s carved out of Precambrian rock. It’s a moment that screams of Thomas Merton — Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it’s a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present, you will never find it. The bedrock is unstable shale, eroding before my eyes, and it’s a moment where I draw in the French Canadians of my Minnesota experience, the voyageurs in search of furs and the Headwaters to the Mississippi River, are different from the Acadians. The difference is largely political and cultural and I don’t fully understand it, but in this moment, I don’t need to.
Here, the pines are dark and sharp against the brightness of morning, the water at the top of the falls shifting from gold to purple in my photographs as the light hits the minerals in the water at different angles. It’s Kathleen Norris — It will tell me something about the world that I didn’t know before, something I sensed but could not articulate. I wonder sometimes about how we sense the natural world, how we feel oncoming storms in our joints, how we can smell them. I’ve been able to predict storms in my right hip since I was in high school and fell off my friend’s horse, even as science says that such knowledge is anecdotal and not proven by science. How often we dismiss what cannot be proved as old wives’ tales, the wrongness of something rooted in both gender and age, as if experience and age aren’t essential to the fabric of humanity. The function of the natural world is to provoke reactions, to make us sneeze with spring allergies or when we walk out into bright sunlight. The natural world does not like to be ignored. The function of the natural world is to remind us that we know more than we can verbalize, to trust what what we know in our bodies about the way the world works.
My high school history teacher, Mr. Smith, told us once that there’s a color of pink he viscerally cannot stand, because it was the color Jackie was wearing when JFK was shot. I have a similar reaction to the shade of yellow of Jacob Wetterling’s sweater in the photograph they used to plead for his safe return after he was kidnapped in 1989, three days before my eleventh birthday. It’s not too much to say that Jacob’s kidnapping broke the state of Minnesota, made us fearful in a way we never had been before. But I feel that color yellow in my stomach, along my shoulder blades, even when I see it out of context.
I’m curious about this idea of embodiment, what our bodies know about the world, natural and otherwise, that our conscious mind cannot translate. Waterfalls live in the body. You need to see the drama of the water and the pull of gravity for its full effect, the movement of water into the gorge, the spray, feel the vibration against your feet, hear the water, and no photographs I attempted will ever do it justice because waterfalls are an embodied landscape, a moment of the body knowing something that the brain may not. It requires your whole body in space, to be present. Stillness cannot capture the way a rainbow through the spray moves and shifts in a breeze. The mist on your skin, the roar of the water you wish you could capture for white noise to sleep. Sometimes I wonder about measuring the auditory pitches of different waterfalls to see which ones feel right and which ones don’t, if I’d prefer to fall asleep to Kakabeka Falls or Gooseberry or Minnehaha. Scientists have discovered that Castleton Tower in Utah vibrates at the same pitch as a human heartbeat, rock eternally in motion, matching a landscape to the human animals on it. I wonder if that contributes to the landscapes that we feel something in, feel calmed, feel at home, or conversely, feel on edge.
I know that the Nova Scotia peninsula moves under the force of the Bay of Fundy’s tides and I think that if I concentrate hard enough, I can feel the stone here under my feet vibrating with the force of the falls, the muscle memory of a place that remembers things, knows things, and requires no human comprehension to hold its knowledge. My dad’s Acadian ancestors came from a place of deep instability, moved across the continent to southern California, another place of deep instability, and I wonder just how much that factored into their DNA, the literal ways their environments shaped their lives, and how much we now dismiss because we’re taught our bodies are not something that can be trusted?
Another time, another place. It’s late on a dark and heavy June night and I’m sitting with my back against the side wall of the Scamp, blue curtains open so I can see out both the back and side windows, lights off, watching the wind pick up and start to tear down the branches around me. I’m fully dressed, baby blue Crocs ready on the floor, my escape plan fully hatched, from how fast I could empty my pillow of its pillowcase and stuff the cats into it, to which direction I’d take down the hill to the permanent shelter. I keep one finger on the refresh of my Weather Channel app, watching the red radar and storm warnings scream around me, the internet not keeping pace with my rising fear. I’m grateful for the strength of the fiberglass around me, glad I’m not in a pop-up or tent. Staying put is the safest bet right now, but it doesn’t feel very safe.
I come from the northernmost points of Tornado Alley, lived for six years in Fargo-Moorhead, the place where the first official F5 tornado was recorded, a scar trough in north Fargo pink with healing in the decades since, new housing built to replace what was lost, filling in a space that will always be a bit more tender than what surrounds it. I wonder if Fargo feels storm-ache in its bones when the weather shifts. I don’t know why storms make me smile, because I know what they can do, how they can pulverize lives into splinters. Yet I am animal enough to great fear storms when I am not safe, storms in my camper that make me grateful I’m surrounded by fiberglass and not tent.
There’s a different between cloudy and not sunny and unnaturally, biblically dark. It’s something your body recognizes as wrong, but it’s not the same as fear or unease. It’s a prickle on your skin, a tightening of your shoulder blades, the arches of your feet. All the vulnerable places on your body, the inside of your elbow. I wish I had my camping journal records of the Glendive, Montana thunderstorm when I was a kid, an event en route to visit the California Babines, but this must have been a time before journaling, before the written word, but my body remembers. I remember the heat of the prairie as we set up the camper, the kind of heat that always seems more intense on a treeless expanse. I don’t remember when the storm hit, but it was evening, too early for bed, even for little girls. We were stuck in the camper, which was unusual for us. We rarely spent any time inside. We watched the few trees in our campground bend to the point of snapping, the wind changing direction on the flagpole, the sheets of water, the thunder making conversation difficult. We often left the dinette table down as a bed during the day – also how the camper needed to travel — but we set up the table that night. Kristi, Kim, and I never needed much entertaining from our parents — and I was always more likely to curl up with a book somewhere — but we played games on the table that night, even Dad, who never played games with us. He was not a game sort of person, which was occasionally disappointing, but rarely so, because I’m not really a games person myself. I don’t think I was older than ten or eleven, but when I asked the family about Glendive, nobody can quite pinpoint when this happened.
But the night went on and so did the storm, shaking the camper, despite the stabilizer jacks. When it came time for bed, we packed up our toothbrushes and Dad drove us in the Blazer to the bathroom, a treat and adventure, given that the bathroom was not too far away, but the ground was six inches deep in water and lightning still split the sky. I didn’t yet know about the properties of electricity and water, though kids in Lake Country are taught from a young age that if you’re swimming and you see lightning or hear thunder, get out of the water now. We would learn the science of it later, just like we’d learn the science of light and sound from those same lightning strikes and thunder cracks. Even so, I never felt fear during that Glendive storm, though in hindsight it probably would been smarter to seek shelter. I think kids pick up cues from their parents — if my parents had shown the least anxiety, we would have picked up on it. In the morning, the sun was back, the ground was dry, and it was like the storm never happened.
Once, parked at my maternal grandparents’ Cabin, with the cats and I in the Scamp, Mom, Dad, and Daisy in their camper, Kris, Mike, Kim, and the kids inside the Cabin, we lost power in a storm in which I did remember the history of the Norway pine that the Scamp was parked under, the twin of which had been our tree swing, which fell down in a straight line windstorm in the 1980s — before we called them derechos — and it had taken out the garage on the way down. That’s the phrasing of the story: it took out the garage on the way down. I gave some thought to historical memory, historical imprinting, in the way that my body recognizes danger — or doesn’t — without my conscious knowledge. Days after I left Nova Scotia, Hurricane Arthur showed up and I was glad I missed it, though it would have made for a good story.
I wonder about when events become history, when they move beyond a lived experience into something in the past, and it’s an important question for me, because beyond basic curiosity, I’m the family historian. It seems important to know when an experience becomes historical, rather than just in the past. I wonder if it’s when those events are no longer embodied, when we can no longer feel them in our bellies, on our skin. What does our body remember that our minds do not? 9/11 will never be history for me because the mention of it still puts me in 100° Spokane heat and goosebumps. Mr. Smith still feels the assassination of JFK in his gut.
There are events in my own family history that make me contemplate this question: the death by suicide of my great-grandfather in 1943, and the murder of my grandfather’s mother and brother in 1976 were never historical events for my grandfather, to the point where he never spoke of them, not once in my hearing. I can’t ask my grandfather to talk about it now to satisfy my historical interest — it doesn’t feel right, even if we had the kind of relationship where that was possible. And if it lives in his belly, in his bones, in his cells, did he pass that knowledge down to my dad? Did my dad pass it to me? For my dad, those events are less a part of his physical experience, and for me, they don’t live in my body at all except as sparks of curiosity, the sting of spray from a waterfall on my skin.
Maybe the road to Acadie is paved with this dual purpose: the pursuit of belonging to a community, a family, to oneself. If the road is paved with family stories of camping, a family unit where I knew where I belonged and had worth, I wonder about the thread that goes invisible with my grandfather’s generation, stories that only exist in documents and data and I wonder about the ethics of telling a story that hasn’t had a human voice attached to it before, to the realization that I don’t need to tell my family’s story because it exists in history books. Or, it should, because the tales around Deportation are still hidden, lost, to the point that Queen Elizabeth II formally apologized for Le Grand Dérangement in 2003. The reclamation of story is still ongoing. I think of Ezra Pound as I stand at Kakabeka Falls — We do not know the past in chronological sequence. It may be convenient to lay it out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time — and watch the ripples and spirals of the waterfall disappear down the gorge, and wonder how we compartmentalize what has happened to people we’ve never met, in times we cannot comprehend without having lived through them.
My own curiosity separated itself into two paths, the historical curiosity of the Acadians and being a part of world history in a way that I’d never experienced before, and if any of that documentation would change anything about the way I understood my family to function, and perhaps what felt like the primary reason for getting on the road: I wanted to see something new.
The one story I did know was not written by an Acadian, but by Longfellow. It didn’t not escape me, as I reread Evangeline, that it was Evangeline who went in search of Gabriel. It’s her one-sided story of closure, of restoration, not his. She’s on the road, she’s the one traveling. I read Evangeline with deep irritation as Gabriel continued to elude her, moving away from her, not towards her. The story is supposed to be romantic, tragic, when it’s just a terrible, awful story of pursuing a love, chasing a relationship when it’s one-sided. When she finds him, dying, at the end, I wanted her to smother him with a pillow. On the Trans-Canada Highway, a woman alone with two cats, a moose, a bear, and more mosquitoes than I’d ever seen in my life, in search of something I’m not sure is even there to be found, I come back to the question of how do we tell a story? And what happens when others tell the story for us?
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