Thursday, October 27, 2016

Treeplanting and Northern living part 1

When in a radically new situation it is natural to draw comparisons to past experiences. I seems like it'd be natural for me to compare my current situation with my experience teaching in Vietnam. After all, it is my only other teaching experience, it was teaching to second language learners in a foreign culture, far from home. Yet Vietnam mostly comes to mind as a contrast, as the life most different from the one I'm living right now. For some reason my mind drifts back continually to treeplanting.

The few direct parallels between teaching in Inukjuak and my time treeplanting in BC fall away under a little scrutiny. They are both in “the north”. But it depends on north of what. Inukjuak is much farther north in a much less temperate part of the country. Treeplanting is always in the summer, and north in the winter and north in the summer are different worlds. There I am planting trees, here I'm above the treeline.

Treeplanting is isolated. Treeplanting you may be 100km down a logging road from the nearest town, but to get here you need to fly. The isolation is of a very different nature as well. While planting you're spending long stretches of the work day totally alone, and during your free time you're spending with the same 30-50 people. Your social world is limited to those people. Here I am working with people all day and I have a theoretical pool of nearly 2000 people to choose from for my social life. But I have found the sense of isolation is more pervasive here. While I never had as many people to potentially relate to treeplanting as I do here, it is easier to relate because treeplanters mostly belong to a very narrow demographic. Nearly everyone in a planting camp is the same age range, nearly everyone has the same job. Most planters are white and middle class, most are left wing and atheists. While there are obviously a range of individuals and everyone is special unique and ect, people who plant are almost exclusively a) college students b) artists or c) ski bums. I find each of those lives easily relatable (I have never really been one for skiing but I appreciate being able to just bum around). Planting also has an added social advantage: everybody is in the same position.

There are many divides between people in Inukjuak, and while there is a lot of good work to form bridges across those divides (the community here is in many ways very warm and welcoming, more on that in another post), I also think that its important to respect the reasons they exist. Aside from the obvious sources of division, class, culture, heritage, and age (I have met very few people who are plus or minus 5 years of my age) there is a division is in how we are experiencing time. For me everything is new, the most mundane is the most fascinating. Since, every thought I have about this place feels like a brand new thought, its hard for me to know what's original and what's being rehashed (most of it is, of course, rehashed). This separates me from the Inuit who must see me as part of never ending cycle of short term teachers (I am told that the community becomes more trusting of you when you return after Christmas). It also separates me from the other Qalllant (non-Inuit, I've been told it literally means “bushy eyebrows”) who have been here for a year, since they now see the mundane as mundane.

Another distinction between me and most others is that I have an end date in mind. I need to return to school next September so I do not have the option of renewing my contract. I do have the desire to to return here after I graduate, but knowing how way leads onto is impossible to tell. Knowing that I will return to my normal life in June gives a very different feel to being here. It has the feeling of a separate life, detached from the life in Montreal. I picture life in Montreal as being rather static, I am told the fall colors are out now, but that just bares memories of the distant past. When I try to picture Montreal today I still see summer, its hard to picture my friends wearing the extra layer they must have on by now.

When I treeplanted I also had the sense that I was living a separate life from my primary life in Montreal (especially in my first few seasons), yet this feeling didn't isolate me because it was common among most treeplanters to some degree or another. They are putting a pause on their life to have this other experience (and to make money). In my first year treeplanting this detachment manifested itself sometimes when I closed my eyes before going to sleep. I would picture a map of the world and I would zoom in on the spot that I was. As I approached northern BC, in my mind, it became more and more strange to me. There was a strange sort of cognitive dissonance... It felt like it couldn't be right, my mind couldn't except the fact of me so suddenly being in this strange piece of earth so far from all of the places I'd imagined going to. Now, six years later again I find myself picturing a map: no that can't be right—but it must be.

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