The Metaphysical Compass

David Solway ponders the meaning of North

It seems the fabled northwest passage and
the fabled northeast passage meet;
at the arctic centre of starved men’s minds
under a white-stunned sun circling the white,

boundless, featureless, white-wired-horizon:
in the absolute cold of a man’s absolute death.
          —Richard Outram, “Expedition,” South of North  

EDMONTON IS THE furthest north I’ve been; before that, it was Mont Laurier, Quebec. But having grown up in the small Laurentian town of Ste. Agathe des Monts, I do know all about snow—and about climate change as well. When I was a teenager completing high school, the more advanced spirits were beginning to talk about global cooling, which eventually became one of the ecological leitmotifs of the 1970s—recall all the palaver about a new, encroaching ice-age and how the entire northern hemisphere would gradually turn into an arctic wasteland. (Climate changes, and so do our obsessions about climate change and its causes.) I remember walking down Principal Street around 11 o’clock one night, munching an Oh Henry chocolate bar that resembled a dark, sweet icicle, and muffled in my father’s fur coat against a 30 below onslaught of seemingly unparalleled vindictiveness. I wondered what I was doing here. The stellar flag above me inspired no sense of patriotism whatever. 

 David Solway. Photo used with permission of the author.

David Solway. Photo used with permission of the author.

Later on, I could only groan inwardly whenever I heard Gilles Vignault chanting “L’Hiver, c’est mon pays”—a sentiment clearly not shared by the sun-seeking hordes of Québécois pouring into Florida for the winter. Myself, I sympathized with Leonard Cohen’s resonant complaint: “Winter is all wrong for me.” Instead of renting a psychological igloo on King William Island in the Arctic, Cohen bought a physical house on the island of Hydra in the Aegean. When his former partner Marianne offered me her own house on the island if I consented to tutor her son, I jumped at the chance. 

From that point on, whenever I could, it was baclavas in hot, sunny Centigrades rather than balaclavas in sub-freezing darkness. You might say I was in prestigious company; after all, Glenn Gould “pulled up his parka” and went north only once, and Steven Leacock, who also wrote prolifically about the north, admitted that he’d never gone there and never would. The poet Richard Outram’s last book, published posthumously, accompanied by the drawings of Thoreau MacDonald, son of Group of Seven member J. E. H. MacDonald, is called, significantly, South of North

Nevertheless, many might feel that in opting for the hot midday rather than the cold midnight sun, I was betraying my patrimony, denying my identity, churlishly seeking the easy way out. These critics would no doubt endorse Rudy Weibe’s dictum in Playing Dead

until we grasp imaginatively and realize imaginatively in word, song, image and consciousness that North is both the true nature of our world and also our graspable destiny we will always go whoring after the mocking palm trees and beaches of the Caribbean and Florida and Hawaii, we will always be wishing ourselves some thing we aren’t, always staring south.

And, as he might have added, lolling on the honeyed littoral of the Aegean, where so many Canadian poets have roistered, declaimed, imbibed, wenched, and occasionally indited a line or two. The point is, character, destiny and identity cannot be legislated or exhorted into being. As I wrote in an essay entitled “The Flight from Canada,” “it is precisely the comfortless absence of a secure identity, the rootlessness, the sense of radical alienation which is our greatest gift and blessing… Routes, not roots, confer authority upon us.” I must confess that I certainly do not find my identity in nordicity, in the so-called “northern imaginary,” or in the enuciative field of boreal discourse. What “north of sixty” really means for me is the shuddering recollection of my last birthday.

I wondered what I was doing here. The stellar flag above me inspired no sense of patriotism whatever.

Nevertheless, I did grow up and spend much of my life in what we like to call the North, even if it was sub-tundra-and-taiga. I can understand the attraction of winter, of sharp, clear cold, of dancing under the aurora borealis (which I have done, ungainly in my mukluks), of the hiss of skis on packed snow and the sweep of a skate’s heel smooth on a bow-bend, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins. According to the Sony BMG bio of Glenn Gould, “He was uncomfortable with the Mediterranean temperament that manifests itself in bright colors, displays of passion, and personal display.” I can understand that, too, having suffered from the excesses of the Mediterranean Weltanschauung far too often. And still, I can’t help feeling like a Russian sub, an alien intruder in someone else’s territory, sneaking along the bottom of collective awareness and domestic expectation.

Blair Bruce has an extraordinary painting, executed in 1888, originally entitled, The Phantom Hunter (now The Phantom of the Snow), which hangs in the Hamilton Art Gallery. It depicts a hunter or trapper, dressed in brown—the only strong colour on the canvas—who has collapsed in the snow, about to give up the ghost—indeed, he is gesturing toward a pallid, phantom-like figure who is obviously his double, barely visible against the white backdrop, moving eerily away from him. Recently, when I was in Hamilton to give a poetry reading, I took some time out in the afternoon to visit the Gallery and view the painting, only to find that, like the phantom figure, it had also moved away from me and was now on tour—ironically, in Quebec, which I had left a few days before. The visit was not a total loss, however, as I emerged with a postcard print that serendipitously encapsulates my relation to the North: a shrunken copy of the original for which I paid next to nothing and which I can scan without discomfort or effort.

From that point on, whenever I could, it was baclavas in hot, sunny Centigrades rather than balaclavas in sub-freezing darkness.

Be that as it may, the painting—and a great one it is—was inspired by a poem entitled “The Walker of the Snow,” by the Irish poet Charles Dawson Shanly who spent 15 years in Canada in the office of public works. The poem, written in 1867, appeared in various periodicals of the time, including The Atlantic Monthly, eventually coming to roost in Edmund Clarence Stedman’s famous 1895 A Victorian Anthology. It’s an extremely haunting and powerful piece, despite its occasional lapse into sentimentality and its verbal pleonasm:*

The Walker of the Snow

Speed on, speed on, good master;
The camp lies far away;
We must cross the haunted valley
Before the close of day.

How the snow-blight came upon me
I will tell you as we go,—
The blight of the shadow hunter
Who walks the midnight snow.

To the cold December heaven
Came the pale moon and the stars,
As the yellow sun was sinking
Behind the purple bars.

The snow was deeply drifted
Upon the ridges drear,
That lay for miles around me
And the camp for which we steer.

T’was silent on the hillside,
And by the solemn wood
No sound of life or motion
To break the solitude,

Save the wailing of the moose-bird
With a plaintive note and low;
And the skating of the red leaf
Upon the frozen snow.

And said I, Though dark is falling,
And far the camp must be,
Yet my heart it would be lightsome
If I had but company.

And then I sang and shouted,
Keeping measure as I sped,
To the harp-twang of the snow-shoe
As it sprang beneath my tread.

Nor far into the valley
Had I dipped upon my way,
When a dusky figure joined me
In a capuchin of gray,

Bending upon the snow-shoes
With a long and limber stride;
And I hailed the dusky stranger,
As we traveled side by side.

But no token of communion
Gave he by word or look,
And the fear-chill fell upon me
At the crossing of the brook.

For I saw by the sickly moonlight,
As I followed, bending low,
That the walking of the stranger
Left no foot-marks on the snow.

Then the fear-chill gathered oer me,
Like a shroud around me cast,
As I sank upon the snow-drift
Where the shadow hunter passed.

And the otter-trappers found me,
Before the break of day,
With my dark hair blanched and whitened
As the snow in which I lay.

But they spoke not as they raised me;
For they knew that in the night
I had seen the shadow hunter
And had withered in his sight.

Sancta Maria speed us!
The sun is fallen low:
Before us lies the valley
Of the Walker of the Snow!

The pleonasm, of course, is “blanched and whitened” but perhaps the effect is a significant one, a calamitous doubling picked up in Bruce’s painting. Still, I don’t know about the “white man’s calamity,” the theme of a recent event I attended, apart from the fact that white men exploring the North generally get themselves into serious trouble from which they have to be rescued by the indigenous inhabitants. The real calamity, perhaps, is that all men turn white in the North—in that sense we are all white men (and women) once we have entered the circumpolar semiotic, the region which exemplifies our condition as fragmentary and perishable creatures the knowledge of which we do everything we can to suppress—and yet which we are infallibly drawn toward experiencing consciously and striving to understand. We turn white with fear, we turn white with age, we turn white as the innumerable pages of the books we read dealing with the North, we are all “blanched and whitened,” we are whited out, as we seek the Northwest Passage of insight and resolution, which of course will always escape us. This is the passage that never really melts. Like the proverbial moth to the flame, the human spirit is drawn to a sheet of ice, which functions as a kind of mirror that reflects back to us the wan phantasms we finally are. I tried to capture this recognition in one of the poems from my book Franklin’s Passage:

They come in all forms
and different orders of magnitude:
pocket-sized, framed in cherrywood,
giving back the common lineament;
the tropic device of thickened panes
painted with sooty translucence
and the frost of approximate discernment;
sheets of ice rising clear and stark
to startle with a long-forgotten shape
in the sunlit, unaccustomed night
of alien latitudes;
even the sky with its polished tain of cloud
assembles a ghostly embodiment
and lamps the visceral pitch of design.
But the voyage itself is the truest glass.
Scoured of flaws, smoke and biases,
It peels back the skin of the customary
to reflect an interior figure
vaguely intuited and routinely misconceived,
like a ship’s completed manifest
accounting for the arc of discovery and loss
and bearing us back, astonished, to ourselves.

“North,” for me, is neither a place, shifting and indefinable as it may ultimately be, nor what Sherrill Grace in Canada and the Idea of North calls, following Michel Foucault, a “discursive formation.” It is the metaphorical correlate of East, West and South, both a literary and existential trope, a metaphysical compass in which every point is marked N, which summarizes our condition as frail, beleaguered, transient creatures struggling against the harsh environment not only of our corporeal presence but of our conscious presence as well, the mystery of our being here as denizens of a cold and implacable epistemology. 

And this is, ultimately, why I prefer the vibrant phantasmagoria of the Mediterranean archipelago where the spirit is drenched in the illusion of plenitude and opulence—the sea undulating with fish and mermaids, the storied past present at every turn, the great poets from Homer and Aeschylus to Seferis and Elitis ventiloquil on the wind. You won’t get much of this north of sixty. At the same time, paradox, as usual, ruffles our convictions. It must be admitted that the actual North may also have a rich and friendly side, as Vilhjalmur Stefansson insisted in The Friendly Arctic, while the Aegean islands, all shale and granite and long deforested, dry as Ezekiel’s bones under the pitiless summer sun, may also initiate us into the frozen barreness of existence. Perhaps it all comes down to a personal decision between two different ways of confronting truth: fire or ice. As Robert Frost wrote, belying his very name:

From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire

But of course, Frost is also aware

            that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

But these are tragic themes that are probably out of place in the more pragmatic framework of a national debate. In the current context the practical question for most of us has to do with the vexed but ever popular issue of Canadian identity. For Margaret Atwood in her classic study Survival, we are defined by the harshness of our climate and geography, or rather, by our resistance to it. But resistance is an ambiguous and polyvalent phenomenon; for example, taking refuge in our colonial heritage and literature, which Atwood opposes, may also be construed as an instance of resistance or at least of refusal. (Hopefully such a form of resilement does not make us who we are.) 

James Lotz, one of the voices in Gould’s Idea of North, states apodictically: “It’s northerness that binds Canadians together.” This is the position that Rudy Weibe has adopted in Playing Dead and that is surely counter-signed by many. My own experience suggests that in holding up “northernesss” as the glue of Canadian identity, as the element which unites us and makes us a single and coherent nation, we are only, so to speak, “playing alive.” Canada is increasingly becoming a patchwork quilt of immigrant communities very few of which cherish a nuptial or filial relationship to the idea of North. My Jewish forebears disliked the cold and rarely played hockey. The burgeoning Muslim ummah in Canada would much prefer sand dunes to snow drifts. The Latin, Greek, Slav, Portuguese, Italian, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese citizens of the true North strong and free evince no desire to incorporate the weather of Ellesmere and Boothia into the climate of their daily living and imagining. Even for “native” Ontarians, I would venture that the Niagara Peninsula is a more inviting piece of geography than the north shore of Lake Superior. People like to retire to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, if they can afford it. “North” is only one of the components of a hypothetical identity or of an identity that is still in process of being constructed.

For all or most of these people, ‘North’ is essentially a six-months-long nuisance or an indulgence of the literati and the intellectual classes. Or at best a territory to be exploited for its resources.

On the day before my departure for Edmonton, I was speaking with the proprietor of our local SuperVideo Shop, a displaced Iranian by the name of Mahmoud Islami. Mahmoud spent the first third of his life in Iran, the second third in Switzerland and the last twenty years in Canada. But his primary loyalty is still to Iran—not the Islamic Republic of Iran, but to the culture and ethos in which he was nourished. “I come from dust and heat,” he said, “not from cold and snow.” The same, he said, is true for his son, for whom occasional visits to the home country have awakened a passion for the traditional archive and cultural renewal. The store owner distinguished between three kinds of Canadian: those who embody the “pioneer soul,” that is, who have actively sought to explore, embrace and internalize the country, its spirit, weather and landscape; those who represent the “immigrant soul,” that is, who have chosen to emigrate to Canada to improve their social and economic standing; and those who exemplify the “fugitive soul,” that is, who have been compelled by circumstance, by violence and repression, to flee for their survival to the free world. 

These categories obviously overlap to some degree, but the members of the latter two far exceed those of the former. For the second and third generations of these latter arrivals, the relation to Canada and the concept of citizenship remains problematic: some revert to the traditions of their ancestors or the precepts of their faith, treating Canada as little more than a convenient passport and sometimes even as a target—their psychic drumlins run against the national flow; others see themselves as free-floating citizens of the global village, for whom Canada is a coast-to-coast airport. As for those who derive from the two founding peoples (so-called), many—not all, by any means, but many—now regard themselves as world-citizens for whom Canada is a place one keeps coming back to, a country they hold dear—but not necessarily dear enough to defend or sacrifice for or even learn about. For all or most of these people, “North” is essentially a six-months-long nuisance or an indulgence of the literati and the intellectual classes. Or at best a territory to be exploited for its resources. Indeed, a curious ratio may be at work here. It may well be that a certain segment of the intellectual clerisy which has embraced the Northern Imaginary is to the entrepreneurial establishment wishing to exploit the North precisely as the Christian missionaries of earlier times who desired to spread the faith and save souls were to the colonial powers that subjugated continents for profit. One, no doubt innocently, paved the way for the other, which was not so innocent. 

But all this has nothing to do with what we might call the daily ontology of our lives or the magnetic center of our being. It’s worth considering that what we call a national identity, for this country at any rate, consists less of place or the idea of place than it does of the idea of multidimensionality. If we do have a country, it’s at least possible that its psychic equivalent is difference and otherness, the feeling for unexplored horizons in every direction coupled for many of us with the memory of distant homelands, whether experienced directly or vicariously. The physical North is certainly an inescapable aspect of our common destiny—Richard Outram ended his life by exposure to the cold of a Port Hope winter; but the beckoning South, the fabled East and the emblematic West, along with an alien past and an undifferentiated future, are equally valid indices of our collective temperament, equally valid forms of resistance. As Outram wrote in “Midwinter Near Sutton” from South of North:

The overnight snowfall has so covered even the cedars,
the entire world on this still morning is black and white. 

It is difficult to imagine spring, greening the spare elms;
or wind-moiled, burnished wheat in the blanketed fields;

or the urgent mercury current ever again reflecting high
summer’s drifted azures, in the iced reproof of a hidden

river snaked across patchwork farmlands. Yet one must.


*Farley Mowat may have had the poem and its title in mind when he wrote his well-known short story The Snow Walker, which actually reverses the thematic drift of the poem.


DAVID SOLWAY's latest book is Installations (2015). His work has appeared in many magazines including The Atlantic.

Photo credit for homepage: By Willem Barentsz. (University Library of Tromsø) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.