Speaking in Tongues

As the leaves start to reappear on the trees I keep my ears pricked for the sound of a returning friend.  Not every year, but often, I hear the familiar two-toned call that sends me scurrying down to the river.  Somewhere out there, in the middle of the bay, I will catch sight of a sole loon, making a brief stop-over on his way back to the lakes after a winter away.  No snowbird, he has not migrated North from Florida, but rather he will have spent the preceding 5-6 months out on the coast, where he could fish in open water.

The first time I heard a loon I was staying in a cottage (for cottage read small shack), on the shore of a long glacial lake in Ontario.  It was the middle of the night, and the sound echoing across the water, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  Not that two-toned call “hello I’m here” but rather the long ghostly warble.  Who hasn’t heard that cry, like something primeval calling out to lost souls.  A haunting.  

I wasn’t living in Canada at that time, but I became increasingly fascinated by loons, obsessed even.  I studied their particular physiology (for example, they have really dense bones that allow them to dive to depths of 150 metres or more); read about the impact of environmental contaminants on their survival (the high levels of methyl mercury in the lakes in Ontario in the 1990s was threatening their reproduction rate); and became fascinated by loon legends.  The common loon (Gavia immer) is a cousin of the great grebe and the great northern diver that had inhabited my childhood imagination as I sailed the waters of the lake district with the Swallows and Amazons.  I was back to sleeping in tents, campfires and endless summer days.

A UK regional arts council grant gave me the funds to return to Canada to learn more about loons and loon legends in particular.  I spent days poring over writings in the National Archives; many were transcriptions of stories told by first nations people.  Sitting high above the Ottawa river, I began to learn about the indigenous connections to animals, and also increasingly about appropriation of native legends.  Thanks largely to the writings of Basil H. Johnston I learned about the importance of indigenous oral tradition, and of the efforts being made to preserve and capture language that had been beaten out of children at the residential schools.  I felt sick.  I couldn’t unlearn what I knew, I couldn’t un-read the stories, but clearly they were not mine to use.

I had planned to spend a week back at the lake with my family.  The same lake, the same cottage where I had first heard a loon. A rest after my research and a time to re-connect with my husband and kids.  We all loved it there.  The place is wild, the kids could run free.  I had also planned that while re-bonding, I would let my research run through my veins, and in the great outdoors the words would literally flow out of the end of my fingers.  Instead, I was blocked. The grant I had been so grateful to receive now seemed like a heavy weight around my neck, the pages stayed blank and my mind couldn’t bring together those disparate pieces of knowledge.

Instead, I went swimming.  And, out in the water a long way from shore, away from all the thinking of the past weeks, and away from any thought of writing, a loon appeared and swam with me. He stayed with me while I trod water for what seemed like an eternity. He stayed with me and trod water while we carefully eyed each other up. He didn’t sink low in the water, as loons do when threatened; he kept his place, just a few metres away. And I can tell you, loons are huge. The night before I had read a story about a loon that attacked a goose, piercing straight through the goose’s heart with its beak. I didn’t turn my back, but nor did I swim away, until finally my extremities became numb with the cold of the water, and I had to leave him.

And that was it, the next day the words began to rise to the surface like bubbles from a loon’s beak. The loon’s words told their own story, so very different than the one I had planned,

His red eye looks straight through my green eye
Pinpointing my frailty.
The  wahwahwah message piercing
words from another world
breaking language into fragments.
Between us the sun paints formlines
on the swelling surface     shapes I will see 
carved over and over in different places
and think of here      the tension of ovoids
where the dead gather
a thousand eyes watching 
the loon and I still in their presence
one flap of a hand     a wing     a sudden breeze
and the picture lost.
Out here his size is obvious
He isn’t scared     riding high 
on the water like some painted decoy.
I have to swim away
It’s legends I’m after      ancient stories
my body is stiff with cold
I’m not prepared for talking to birds.

(excerpt, from Speaking in Tongues, Published in Warm Bodies, Foreign Parts Loxwood Stoneleigh Press [1996].) 

Now, I realize that many of you reading this blog post have also had encounters with these amazing birds, and have your own stories to tell. I would love to hear them. A friend tells me how every year she would watch the loons raise their chicks, sometimes, one, sometimes two. She would see them riding on the parent’s back, or being given fishing lessons. My neighbours, who also have a house on a lake, tell me that every year the loons call to let them know they are back for the summer, and always give a last call before leaving for the winter.

So, I often look out for that loon friend who swam with me just when I needed him the most.  I look out for him whenever I am on a lake, and, just as at the start of every season I try to be down by the river to greet him, as the days shorten and the leaves fall, I listen carefully for the final call of the season – “Goodbye, farewell, I’m on my way”.

Images by slipcase and Hilary Carter from Pixabay