Field Notes

Being a record of certain phenomena found in the environs of the Lost Quarter.  

The Lake

Evenings and days off he would go out for drives into the countryside, choosing a road and seeing where it led him. A familiar restlessness drove him, but instead of fleeing he was wandering in place, always with a home to return to. The roads radiating out from the small town he had come to in the cardinal directions became familiar in the same comforting way as the routines of his job. He got to know the hills, the little sloughs surrounded by trees that dotted the fields he passed, and the houses and yards filled with farm equipment and corrals that marked his progression. If his mind wandered and he came back to himself he would quickly know where he was when he spotted the yard with the Canadian and Saskatchewan flags or the hill with the three wooden grain bins painted orange.  

Several times he found himself at the lake, staring at its gleaming water. The first time he followed the southern walking trail that led to the hills that encircled the far end of the water. The lake became a kind of swamp there, the trail ending, filled with hummocks that were impossible to traverse without getting very wet. He tried, just to prove the point, nearly ending up with a broken ankle for his efforts. After that he stayed away from that end of the lake, taking the trail along the north shore the next time. The way there became impassible much earlier, the trail stopping and the ground becoming marshy. There had been thunderstorms seemingly every other day for a week and the ground was very soft. When he stepped out onto it, the mud swallowed his shoe up to his ankle and he had to fight to pull it out.   

It was the fourth time that he ended up on the road heading to the lake that he wondered just what was going on. Did all roads lead here? Clearly not, yet whether he started off going north or south or east, the highways and gravel roads he selected, seemingly by chance, always brought him back to the lake. He wouldn’t even realize it, until he saw the creek running alongside the road and then he was descending into the valley catching that glimpse of glimmering blue water in the sunlight. 

Field Notes

Being a record of certain phenomena found in the environs of the Lost Quarter.  

The Black Rider

The rider, dressed in black, journeyed west across the plains as spring arrived fitfully across the land. He encountered all manner of weather, the wind always at his face, sometimes bitterly cold. There were blizzards and rain and days so bright and warm it seemed impossible it could turn cold again. Snow lingered in most places, especially on the north-facing sides of hills and valleys which the sun only reached for a brief time each day. The rivers he came to were largely open, though ice still clung to some of the banks and they were swollen with runoff. The ground was damp and soft everywhere, even where it was bare, making his evenings miserable affairs. The temperatures would plunge below freezing, sometimes far below, and he would wake up covered in frost, his blankets and clothes stiff.  

He passed along roads – wagon trails more accurately – before leaving them behind and following buffalo and cattle trails that had a wandering westward trajectory. Sometimes there was nothing to mark a way forward, only the snow and the dormant grass of the vast plain. An empty place by all appearances, though he knew that to be deceptive. He had come from a place of towns and villages and farms and people and now encountered such signs of civilization only intermittently. The great tribal nations that had once commanded the immense sweep of the prairies were banished now and newcomers were taking plows to the grass. There were towns and homesteads here and there, but mostly he found only surveyor stakes buried in the still frozen earth waiting for warmer times for someone to pull them up and claim them. The ranchers had taken their cattle to southern valleys and would not return until spring had truly come to stay.  

This suited him, for he preferred to stay away from people. The presence of magpies, strutting and chirping and preening, would alert him to their nearby presence before it came into sight and he would go out of his way to avoid them. Sometimes it could not be helped. He passed by homesteads with families blinking at his sudden appearance as though they had just awoken from a winter slumber. One time, in trying to ride around a town he came upon a group of children with their sleds making the most of a steep hill while the snow stayed upon it. Their screams of delight, heard before he caught sight of them, startled him initially and he was still tense and frowning, with a hand at his belt, as he rode by.  

What people saw, when they noticed him at all, was a man in a long black coat with mud-spattered black boots. His shirt and pants were faded, almost absent of colour. As was his face, his expression always distant, his soft eyes looking past anyone who tried to meet his gaze. Some caught a glimpse of a pistol at his belt, a flintlock. A large cumbersome thing out of all time. Those who saw it wondered at it and dismissed it, for no one would carry such an antique across a land where wolves and bears and worse things than that lurked. 

Notes on the Grippe

Being an accounting of the recent and continuing pandemic and its various circumstances, from the perspective of an inhabitant of the regions lately called the Lost Quarter. Dates unknown.

Day One Thousand Ninety Five

Three years since the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn arrived upon these shores. When I think back on that time I can recall walking past a shuttered bar advertising a St. Patrick’s Day party that never arrived. It is a BBQ place now, the bar never reopening through all the turmoil of openings and closings, limited seating, and outdoor only. Certainly not all of us made it through the last three years. None of us made it through whole. We are not who we once were, but that is always the case.

I have noticed lately people referring to pre-pandemic times and post-Grippe (for that is what everyone has come to feel the last six to eight months has been), but never to the plague months themselves. That was a time outside of time, when we stood apart from ourselves. I went back and read the first few weeks of entries to these notes, when I was writing each day, and the disorientation I was feeling is obvious. I hardly knew what to say, how to put into words what was happening. Even now the feeling of both how tenuous and unsettled those days felt – when truly we did not know what might come next – and how numbingly same each day was is hard to explain. I lived it and yet it doesn’t feel a part of my life. It is separate, off on its own, not sewn into the fabric of my existence.

There were people who lost the thread of themselves during these longest of three years. For some those terrifying and numbing days became an identity. They found solace in remaining ever vigilant for the next shoe to drop, for the Dread Lord to take upon his next guise. It is the only way they could feel safe from that fear we all felt. Others spent years proclaiming the Grippe Reborn a hoax, a plot, nothing but a cold. They rejected the inoculations, denied even having been touched by the Dread Lord and proclaimed malaria drugs and worm paste and other things miracle cures. Though they loudly declared that everyone else was living in fear, they were the most frightened people I have ever encountered and they are living in fear still.

Life, after all, is capricious and our fates are not our own to command. That is the hard truth we were all forced to see during the Grippe Reborn’s terrible reign. Some of us did not want to.

I never lost hope during those discomfiting months, though my patience was sorely tested. My expectation was always that the days of the Grippe Reborn would be finite, an interregnum. As life began its slow return to normal I felt a kind of bitterness at the time lost when we were unable to do so many of the things that brought us pleasure. That was combined with an urge to not waste any of the days remaining, for I understand now, as I only thought I did before, that there are no guarantees.

For a long time in my youth I was very focused on the future that I was working toward, when my life would be whatever I imagined it would be. That changed as I grew older and I realized that the future is always waiting but our lives exist in the now. So many of our dreams will never be realized, so better to find pleasure in what we already possess. Yet in the abysmal now of the Grippe Reborn, when the present seemed a morass from which we might never escape, I found myself again lost in the future of what I would do when all this ended. It was like a promise to myself that it would. Some of my most distinct memories of those early months are of walking with my love and talking of our futures. Did we want to live here or move? Did we want to change careers? What did we want to do? We were driven by restlessness, but also by our fundamental need to believe there are still good things to come. That our lives would not just be marked by the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn.

Field Notes

Being a record of certain phenomena found in the environs of the Lost Quarter.  

Regarding Monuments

There are few monuments to be found in the Quarter. It has never been that sort of place. The wooden grain elevators that used to tower above each town would seem to qualify, yet they are unremarkable in the sense that every town in the surrounding regions had one as well. Most are gone now, fallen into disrepair or torn down, replaced by concrete elevators that loom far taller on the landscape. That is the fate of every construction in the Quarter it seems. So many of the railroads that once crisscrossed these parts have been pulled up, replaced by highways that pass by abandoned homesteads, with houses that are slowly falling into disrepair, being reclaimed by the landscape. The first inhabitants of this place left only stone rings where their tipi’s stood, before they were driven into exile.  

It seems that will be the fate of much of what has been built by Those Who Came as well. The home I grew up in will certainly not stand for centuries, marking the passing years as homes do in other places. It will be torn down or left to disintegrate, depending on the inclination of whoever comes to possess it. Even the towns and villages cannot hold here. They are abandoned slowly, street by street, building by building. People move to other towns, but most leave the Quarter altogether. Few return, for the ways back are difficult and slowly being forgotten by all who once passed along those roads. 

Field Notes

Being a record of certain phenomena found in the environs of the Lost Quarter.  

An Unbordered Place

Once the Quarter, and all that surrounds it, was part of a vast inland sea. That time is long past, the waters vanished, but one can still find the remains of the creatures who inhabited this place then. Ancient sharks and the first birds who had not yet learned how to fly. Their fossils can be found in the badlands and other desiccated places. It serves as a reminder that, though the Quarter seems unchanging and unyielding, it was not always as it is now and it will not be in some distant future. 

This place still retains some of the essential character of the ancient sea. If you stand in an empty spot, atop a hill where you can see the full horizon all around, you will see the undulating hills, cresting like so many waves, with no shore now to crash upon. It is the shapelessness of water that defines the Quarter now, always shifting, one moment reaching out to fill every crevice and the next retreating. An unbordered place. You cannot put boundaries upon it, for they drift and the place itself does not hold steady.  

In those moments, when you stand upon the hills alone (you must be alone), the time of the Quarter plays one of its strange tricks. Time is always strange, the past never being the past entirely, especially here. Close your eyes and listen the wind as it moves along the hills, stirring the grass and it is the endless cascade of waves upon a vanished sea.    

Notes on the Grippe

Being an accounting of the recent and continuing pandemic and its various circumstances, from the perspective of an inhabitant of the regions lately called the Lost Quarter. Dates unknown.

Day One Thousand Sixty

One rarely hears of the Grippe Reborn anymore. It is not a topic of conversation on any level. When I visited with friends who I had not seen in some time, in part because of the precautions we were taking due to the Dread Lord, no one mentioned it. In the news it may be referred to and on social media people still sound notes of alarm, but that is all so much background noise. Those who wish to be concerned will be concerned, everyone else has determined to move on. Even those who have recently fallen under his dread powers, some falling quite ill, have not spoken of it in the same way people did even last year. It is just another illness now.

Lately it seems all one can read are stories of doom. The nation is broken and our response to the Dread Lord demonstrates that we cannot hope to fix the problems we face. We have entered a period of decline, from which we will not recover. Some of it is partisan sniping, some genuine fear at the magnitude of the problems we face and our seeming inability to deal with them. Certainly it seems we have entered a period of global instability, triggered in part by social convulsions that the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn inspired. There is war in Ukraine and posturing between China and the western nations over Taiwan’s independence. Our health systems are strained, inflation is high and our governments seem ineffectual.

Despite all this I feel a sense of optimism. We came through a terrible and trying time, battered and bruised, but still intact. Certainly there are grave challenges to be faced and tumultuous times undoubtedly lie ahead. But that has forever been the case. The lesson I take from the last three years is that we can come together to meet those challenges. Not without a cost, but we can do it.

History is often written through the prism of tumultuous events, in part because they are easily noticed. To look at things in the long view, the deep history, is much harder. Gradual, steady change, the accumulation of small things, is barely noticed but is transformative. My parents can recall when electricity and running water came to farms in the Lost Quarter. That was their childhood. I recall our first computer and when we first got access to the internet. I remember reading stories about cyberspace and trying to imagine what that would be like. Now we exist in it constantly and don’t even acknowledge it.

The world of thirty, fifty, seventy years ago is both familiar and unrecognizable. The future of ten, twenty or more years will be too.

Field Notes

Being a record of certain phenomena found in the environs of the Lost Quarter.  

Mourning Boxes

It is often easy, especially for those who are from there, to dismiss the Lost Quarter as an unremarkable place, no different than any other in the western domains with whom we have a shared history of settlement. Certainly the indigenous peoples of these regions made no distinctions between this place and any other that fell under their purview in those ancient times that are somehow not that long ago. We, who came after they had been pushed out and exiled to reservations, established borders and townships and provinces and all the rest, though borders have always been tricky here, never quite able to take hold. The Quarter was always set apart, without anyone quite realizing it, the ways in and out unclear except to those who know them. 

All this I say by way of introduction to the most unique custom of the current inhabitants of the Quarter. I speak of course of the mourning boxes. They are nearly ubiquitous in the households of the Quarter, yet found seemingly nowhere else. Each family possesses one, visibly displayed, if not in a place of honour or pride exactly, at least where guests will not miss it. The individual boxes vary, ranging from the size of a jewelry box to a mantel clock at their largest. The majority are perfect cubes, though the larger are shaped like a chest. There can be no mistaking them for a storage vessel though, for they are enclosed with no obvious means of opening them. Most are made of wood, stained but not painted, sometimes with engravings. These vary considerably and can be quite elaborate.  

I have said they have no obvious means of being opened, which perhaps gives the false impression that they can be. They cannot without being deconstructed and there is no purpose in doing so for they contain nothing. Their sole purpose as an object is display. Yet, they are not art exactly, though some are quite beautifully constructed. Nor are they, despite their name, vessels for memorializing the dead. Quite what they are for and why so many residents of the Quarter possess and display them is something of a mystery.  

Notes on the Grippe

Day One Thousand Twenty One

One year ends and another begins, the calendar’s remorseless march. How we obsess with measuring the moments of our lives: years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds. So many of them pass without us realizing it as we keep moving relentlessly forward, head down against the wind. Until suddenly we are standing in a new town with no firm grasp of how we have come to be here. Everything looks familiar, but the closer we inspect the less recognizable it all seems. Everyone we meet is a stranger with a faint, polite smile and a gaze that won’t quite meet ours. They, like us, are already casting their eyes ahead to the horizon.

As miserable a beginning to winter as I can remember there being in years. Bitter cold and snow from November on. My love and I escaped it by fleeing these parts for a few weeks, but it was still waiting for us when we returned. Day after day of -20 or colder as the nights grew longer and longer. Followed by warm spells where the temperature rose above freezing so quickly I ended up with headaches as Chinook winds blew in from the west. A day or two later the cold would regain its grip upon these parts, unrelenting.

Looking back at the past year, what will I remember in the years to come? I do not know when the history books will say the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn was defeated, but this was the year where we resumed the parts of our lives we had set aside for those two miserable years. Though he managed to touch both my love and I, I suspect I will not remember any details of that illness. It will blend in to all the other colds and flus that have been inflicted upon me, comfortingly unremarkable.

I will remember how as the weather warmed and spring turned to summer the crowded streets in our neighbourhood as people returned to their old habits. How light my heart was seeing them. We made three trips beyond the Quarter, venturing to Europe and the Eastern Dominions, something I had missed more than I realized. There are moments in both that I will treasure. Not just seeing the great sights, but those chance moments that can only happen in that particular place. Sitting in parks in the sun in a strange place watching people going about their days. Walking with my love alongside three great rivers. The taste of espresso, a fresh pint of beer, a baguette with ham and cheese, cucumber sandwiches at tea.

A good year, all in all. The world felt as though its missing pieces returned and we learned how to live in it again.  

Notes on the Grippe

Day One Thousand

One thousand days of the Dread Lord Grippe Reborn. His reign of terror can perhaps be said to be over – we all certainly act as though it is – and yet he persists. An insidious presence at the heart of everything. Every week dozens perish in these parts by his hand. There are solemn announcements, ignored by most as we go about our days. Our hospitals are overflowing again, this time with children, who were spared the worst of the Dread Lord’s initial ravages, but now seem to be suffering from other disputants to his crown. There are even suggestions they may be working in concert in some way, exposure to the Grippe Reborn’s touch ensuring that we are all weaker when we face one of his challengers. Or perhaps it is just that our quarantine measures spared us from this suffering for two years and now that they have been lifted we have not had our regular exposure and so have fewer defences than we might otherwise.

That seems to be the way of things now. We are living through the unforeseen consequences of our desperate actions. The overflowing hospitals, the doctors and nurses leaving their professions because they are overwhelmed by the relentless tide still rising, threatening to drown us all. We have all been broken in some way it seems by these last, long one thousand days. We have lost the order of things and are fighting now to regain solid ground. Everyone is disoriented, haunted somewhat, wishing that life could just be for a little while.

We all react differently to this unsettling new world. There were the protesters of course, trying to overthrow the Dominion and restore some mythical lost world. They still remain, though dwindling in number, convinced of a grand conspiracy and the need for action. There are those whose sense of personal safety has been so completely shattered that they demand a return to the quarantine strictures and the cocoon of safety it provided. Others complain about how terrible everything has become, our governments inept and flailing, our institutions revealed as ineffectual, and madmen everywhere. To them we have entered an inevitable decline as a civilization from which we shall not recover.

I remain hopeful for a future despite all the turmoil of this current moment. Like the first thousands days of the Grippe Reborn, this moment too will pass. What our battle with the Dread Lord has revealed is what we can achieve when we work together. For so long we have heard how little we as individuals can do to thwart the great crises of our day like climate change. It is a way by which those who wish to do nothing can excuse themselves from feeling guilty. But we have now seen what is possible if we work together at something. We can turn aside the Dread Lord. We are capable of so much more than we allow ourselves to believe.

Notes on the Grippe

Day Nine Hundred Ninety Five

Our bodies betray us. Day after day, time marches on, and we are not what we believe we are. The face in the mirror looks different than the one in our minds. There is sagging here and pudginess there, a slouching kind of inevitability. Fight against it as much as we can, it remains. Worse, we are forced to realize that we are made of flesh and blood, shit and piss, phlegm and other dripping things. Hacking and coughing, sniffling and sweating, exuding noxious and unpleasant fluids.

The Dread Lord Grippe Reborn is diminished, a shadow of his former terror, yet still present, still insidious. Joining him in the general clamour of the gloomy first days of winter are the disputants for his crown. How much longer will he hold it while they marshal their powers and battle for supremacy. None of them will claim it for some time, we can hope, but we will all still suffer and wheeze as they move among us.

My love and I were both felled by one of the disputants a few weeks ago. An annual occurrence that had been pleasantly absent these last few years of quarantine restrictions, one of their few benefits. Their absence may have made the return all the worse though, for both of us were quite miserable for a week or so. It seems everyone is suffering these last weeks, the shelves bare of medicine, the doctor’s offices filled with coughing petitioners. Another of the great benefits of our quarantined years, we can now stay home from the office while sick without guilt or recrimination.

There have been some benefits, it is easy to forget, but the price paid was so dear. I wonder, when we have time to look back on all of this, to see all that came to pass, to measure the results of it all, what we will say was worth doing and what our mistakes were.