Thursday, March 18, 2010

Coureur de Bois. A matter of perspective.

The other day I had an idea for combining painting and photography and quickly made an eight inch canoe with two simple cut out figures from some heavy paper. After a quick paint job, I sprayed it with varnish to make it water proof and the next sunny day carried my camera and my little piece of Canadian history down to the stream to see what I could make of it.
I also took a length of wire so I could anchor the canoe in the stream because trying to tend the canoe and camera at the same time seemed unnecessarily difficult A few rocks in the canoe for ballast and I set it gently down in the current. Transformation! Standing, and seeing the paper model in the context of the larger landscape was one thing, setting the camera at water level so all that was visible was the canoe in the rapids was quite amazing. All a matter of perspective! I moved around to various places and photographed it in a variety of settings; the two paddlers splashed down fierce rapids, eased their birchbark canoe through quiet water, and balanced precariously on a waterfall ledge. Like actors on a stage or characters in a book the artifice of cut out figures faded into real people in the midst of a grand adventure. The young people in their fragile birchbark canoe were characters from the early days of Canadian history - Coureur de bois.

Coureur de bois ( Runners of the woods) in the early days of the first French colony in North America were those young men who evaded the rules of church and state and wandered off into the wilderness to live with and learn from the Indians whose land the colony had invaded. What an amazing opportunity for them to be the transitional figures between the rigid European Colony and the land and it indigenous peoples. For a while at the beginning, in what would eventually be Eastern Canada, just as in The Thirteen Colonies to the south there was an opportunity to begin a relationship of equality and respect here on native land. It did not work in the end of course, we are all familiar with the blood and destruction, the building of attitudes that exist and power our national attitudes to this day. But, ‘for one brief shining moment...’ there were the Coureur de bois and others who came in wonder and wandered within the spirit of the land.

So have a good look at these young men, that Indian in the bow, showing the way to his friend and sharing his adventure. That determined fellow in the stern with feathers in his hair, concentrating on this moment in history. He can still speak French, probably two Indian languages, hunt, build a canoe and is no longer certain what he is in terms of culture. They are very small in my little stream, as though, as in perspective, the farther back in time, the smaller is our view of them. I think though that they can still live in and activate our imaginations.

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