I have a thing for North. I suppose this is very Canadian. Or maybe it’s just me and Glenn Gould. We who have this tendency of leaning northward are secret admirers of storms and falling temperatures; we wear a certain pride in the misery of it all and envy provinces whose kitchens smell of snow cakes on days when they’re unable to open their back doors. Mine is not a land of nail-biting where cold weather is concerned, but rather, the idea of North beckons with a kind of curious wonder at just how Canadian are we… How much North have we seen? How much can we take?
And so it was with great anticipation that I opened Boundless, Kathleen Winter’s account of finding herself in the North. (Double entendre intended.) Not only does she find herself there when, on something close to a whim, she accepts an invitation to participate in a voyage through the Northwest Passage but, in the course of things, she finds bits of herself in the landscape of icebergs and tundra as well as in memories of an English childhood, travels through Europe, arrival in Canada via Newfoundland where she lived for many years, and then to Montreal, the city she now calls home.
While home feels like something of a theme, Winter confides that a sense of belonging to this place or that, has always eluded her. Maybe this is why she’s so good at noticing the details that make a life.
Part of the book’s magic is how she weaves recollections of fresh English cream with food banks and cockroach ‘vendettas’, third floor flats and hundred year old lilacs grazing windows; with British rain vs Newfoundland rain, Vita Sackville West’s white garden, Mexican itinerants and whistling boys in Corner Brook; with ‘marmalados’ and fig trees in Montreal, fish markets in Greenland, junk food and wild food in Pond Inlet; with the purchase of a handmade doll… and the sight of a polar bear that changes everything.
Among the passengers on this voyage is Nathan Rogers, son of Stan Rogers. His father’s song, and the phrase, ‘tracing one warm line’, is a powerful soundtrack that fades in and out of the reading. In fact, sound may be another theme. The absence of it as Winter explores the land—“I’d been given the key to enter, to lie down and listen, to breathe its exhalations and hear it speak…” —and then the shock of its re-appearance when the PA system announces a tour to see a rock formation or go in search of whales or birds. Winter ignores each call, prefers to let the land show her what’s hers to see. “… if a narwhal or other astonishing creature wanted to reveal something to me, it would do so when we were both ready.”
It occurs to her there is a need to “understand…mind and body in a new way.” And how to receive, to become more tree-like.
“Somehow everything I’d learned about life pointed to an idea that to receive something you had to earn it. I’d never thought of myself as a tree, a graceful being visited by songbird, starlight, and rain, and which people love for itself, not for what it does or how smart it is, or how indispensable. I was used to making myself indispensable in one arena or another…”
The narrative moves forward, backward and sideways through time, like shifting ice, memory bumping up against the present and creating yet another dimension (in one instance, as the ship is forced to take an alternate route, Winter first considers Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing off in their wooden shoe, then ties this in with past explorers who “might have spied a whole gleaming mountain range that didn’t exist…”).
Some of my favourite passages reflect on the happy discovery of muskox fur caught among the vegetation, which she gathers with reverence for weaving into various projects. This parallel of wool and weaving feels like a turning point as she tells us she comes “…from a long line of sheep stealers,” and we sense her pride, this instinct she has inherited to collect, connect, create.
A sense of belonging emerges…
“I wove another muskox tuft into my work and felt excited that tomorrow, when we landed at Paisley Bay, I could search the terrain for more fragments of that one warm line.”
It’s a strangely wild yet contemplative ride she takes us on as the landscape and the people slowly work themselves into her psyche. She tells us that, initially, she couldn’t find the words to describe the experience, and that only two years later, after looking at her own sketches, was she able to begin writing the book.
“I was finding, in the North, that words are secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.”
In some ways it feels a very private account, musings and observations as if written for self, as if the author might lift her head at any moment and be surprised to see us there reading.
Ultimately though, Boundless is about discovery. Of history, land, self, of connection to others, of hearing and seeing in new ways, and of questioning what actually matters. It’s about the power and beauty of North. Not exactly a book about the North… but more because of it.