You're on the phone with your daughter who in her first days of medical school has finally entered a room of cadavers – humans, dead – under wraps, not an ankle showing. And you look up and are halfway into a kind of crime scene, in the middle of the block, fire engines at both ends, police cars, neighbours in pajamas (!?) No one seems too concerned that you’ve wandered onto the stage, as it were, as a newbie stagehand might, and you are allowed to cross through.
No news tonight, your dad says, when you arrive for your regular news’n’nibbles. You’d known something was up because he hadn’t left the door ajar, and there was no tray ready with two beers wrapped in napkins. No beers in sight at all. “The power is down,” he says, opening a drawer beside his bed and pulling out a flashlight, which he turns on and off, which makes you laugh, since it’s still daylight, but mostly because he is so practical, and you are not, so his practicality looks like obedience, but to logic, which is invisible as a god. He is practicing some kind of atheistic fealty, a lifeblood of his, like electricity itself.
“They say the electricity could come back on anywhere between two hours and” -- he pauses for just the wrinkle of time -- “two weeks.” “Well, they sure know how to manage expectations,” I say. “The elevator’s working,” I add. D. answers, “Yes, we believe there’s a generator.” We. He has been out in the hallways, chatting with neighbours. The unifying force of minor calamities. And earlier this afternoon he’d spent an hour trying to get past a call queue to a human.
“What about your meat?” “I’m not hungry.” “No, I mean in your freezer. Thawing.” “Just don’t open it.” “Well, I’d like a beer,” I say. These news’n’nibbles have me trained. “Me also,” he says. “I’ll be quick,” I say. And so we both watch as my right arm pulls the fridge door open and my left arm plunges in, grabs two beers, careful not to select the 0% Iota, knocking over a can but not taking the time to right it – phewph!
We sit at the table and drink our beers, going over what we know of the news of the day, a kind of oral storytelling news-reporting. The headline about 10,000 penguin chicks dying because ice melt forced them into the ocean before they’d grown their waterproof feathers was a bit of a stinker. D cast about for a silver lining, a feather of comfort. I start thinking about D’s supper. “You’ve got a gas stove, so that’s good—” I say. “Yes, we think we can light it with a match,” D says. So the stove’s igniter is electric – no tiny person person with a flint lighter.
D wants to see what’s going on down on the street, especially after I describe the crime scene and interrupted Shakespeare play. We finish our beers, check the thermometer, he grabs a jacket. and we go, risking a ride on the generator-powered elevator. The scene is quite reduced, no fire engines or police cars. “There was police tape across there,” I say, pointing lamely. Still, right at the epicentre of all that transpired, a city worker is wrapping a hunk of electrical pole in warning ribbon. He hops in his truck and drives away.
We approach a physically impressive man watching from across the street. (The playwright?) “What have you figured out?” D asks him. “I don’t know,” the man answers. A moment elapses. “I think a distribution transformer blew.” Phew! We launch in, discussing wheres and whens, pointing at the top of the pole, the chunk left on the street. “I was a general,” the man says, letting a bit of time elapse, “contractor. So I know a bit about this stuff.” But his answers dwindle and contradict. D points this out: “The more we ask, the less you know.” “Yes, it’s true,” the man says. A moment passes. “But at least I’m honest about it.” “Honest?” D ribs, “I thought you were a general contractor." “I went to confession,” the man says, “the day I retired.” D laughs helplessly at his, then he tells a boyhood story about being invited to camp by a neighbour kid. “'Does anyone want to be saved?’ a woman asked at some point. That sounded good. Why not? So I got up there and was saved - for life!” “Can I touch you?” the general contractor asks. D puts out his arm.
Out of the mist a woman in loose Batik pants and a thick cardigan comes towards us pushing a dog in a baby carriage. “So, was it hit by lightning?” she asks. This seems preposterous, what with the over-loaded transformer, worn-out insulators, obstruction by cherry tree -- but of course, it makes perfect sense considering the afternoon's thunderstorm with all the trimmings. We cross the street and wander around the burned telephone pole, one end all charcoal. “Could it have been lightning?” I ask delicately. “Definitely,” the general contractor says.
A 10-year old skips up. I give her a chunk of the blackened wood. "Take this -- it was burned by lightning!” Her eyes light up. “I’ll give it to my dad. He loves lightning. When we were camping in Bobcaygeon, there was a huge storm, and he slept through the whole thing.”
The general contractor wanders off -- "well, that's the end of comedy hour" -- and D heads home to start the stove with a match. I head home too, loving my neighbourhood, and wistful for a pre-digital, pre-phone-queue world. Cutting through Irving Park, I notice the sequoias are turning brown where they are always green, and think about those sinking penguins again.
Later I call D. The electricity is on, and he is not convinced after all that it was lightning that caused the fire. I have the thought that if the medical school cadavers had been uncovered, we would know exactly what happened.
I was supposed to be working, but fled the over-warm house with no plan, ending up, as I often do, at Sahsimi, meaning harpoon, named for the large erratic on the shore – an unwitting forever seal god or “boss of seals” that in Songhees memory Hayls the Transformer made of a disrespectful seal hunter. The place is also named Harling Point, for a dentist (!) who died of the excitement of a dramatic ocean rescue in 1934.
And it is where the oldest Chinese cemetery in Canada lies, the place chosen for its feng shui (wind water) – “a mystical combination of Chinese philosophical, religious, astrological, cosmological, mathematical, and geographical concepts,” Chinese Canadian scholar David Lai writes, “originating in fear of…forces of nature which the ancient Chinese could not explain,” and perhaps in admiration of how nature’s “agents of erosion, wind and water, carve out lofty mountains and hills.”
The souls of the dead hover over their tombs, Lai explains; good feng shui gives them comfort. Sahsimi has topnotch cemetery feng shui: smooth treeless surroundings; no straight lines, which might point at and disturb the dead (the paths wander so naturally, following them is like floating); a water view; a sheltering border of low ridges and mountain ranges; a well-drained slope to the south, which equals life (north, not so much).
The tide was high, a relief after last weekend’s dizzying visit to Botanical Beach (where, facing FOMO panic as tourists oohed across the beach, I’d taken myself by the shoulders: their tidal pool is no more amazing as yours). With that beauty covered up, I could make tracks or, in pedometerist parlance, get my steps in. I hurried along the “complexly folded seafloor volcanic rocks overlain by marine mudstone,”* -- clinging vertically at times, loathe to yield shore rights to the bully mansions.
Finally, my yeah-yeahs out, I slung my backpack onto a rock ledge, and sat. A single crow pecked expertly at tiny somethings I could not see. I even wondered if she was faking it, out of pride or for an excuse to hang out. She was oddly unperturbed by me. Did she know that I feed two crows daily? Had they draped me with some magnetic veil, the way travellers mark a generous house? Or had I learned crowy ways of negotiating space, glancing dartingly to camouflage acute awareness?
A dragonfly tilted and zoomed on the air. The fastest flying insect, a 2021 study also found dragonflies to be the “most agile”, with “exquisite control” over their flight, separate muscles directing their four wings independently. To track their motion, the researchers “dressed” them with tiny magnets.
A Pacific harbour seal raised its blubbery head amid some bull kelp – the fastest-growing plant in the world (neck and neck with bamboo).
The barnacles by my feet were likely chthamalus dalli Pilsbury, which live higher in the intertidal zone than any other barnacle, able to go without water the longest. Barnacles also have the largest penis of all creatures (relatively speaking). The tide had ebbed a little, and I spied a limpet in a pool. Designed to scrape algae from rock for 20 years, the limpet’s tongue is the strongest natural material – stronger than spider silk. The limpet would have wandered grazing during high tide, then followed its mucus trail back to this home spot, where it won’t dry out during low tide. Its shell’s sharp edges have possibly worn in the rock a path to help get her home – called a homescar.
This was a boomerang walk, not a loop, but on the way home, I cut straight a few times, across my undulating path outward, the way a river will remove a meander (and sometimes create an oxbow lake). I thought about superlatives – most, only, -est – and how they help us realize that here too, are the farthest reaches.
But isn’t everything a superlative? My kids laugh at the claim that the totem pole in Beacon Hill Park is the tallest in the world, when they’re only made along our coast. Aren’t you the greatest person right now, at your intersection of longitude and latitude? Can’t we honour each unremarkable blade of grass and dull stone…
Philosophical quibbling is becoming luxury. Heat records, highest ocean temperatures, are being set monthly. It has been said that what we are calling the hottest temperatures today will in 100 years be the coolest temperatures in the past century.
Soon, we won’t have time for a day’s casual amazements, the cricket that seemed to fly but was actually being carried off by a moth, or the preponderance of late-season blackberries, which I ate greedily, having skipped lunch and run out of water. Or, back in “civilization”, the older man exiting Thrifty’s with three large bags of grapes in each hand. I chased after him to get a photo, but he turned too quickly into a dentist’s office. Later, I saw him walking down the street, no sign of the grapes -- instead, he was pushing a baby carriage.
David Lai, A Feng Shui Model as a Location Index
Victoria’s Waterfront Geology: Part 1; Bud Harwick and Gerri McEwen
Lyndsay Dagg, The Influence of Feng Shui on Cemetery Design: A Spatial Analysis of the Chinese Cemetery in Victoria, BC, 2021; UVic thesis
The Haunted House of Harling Point