Letters to Urban Friends: Winter in Peace River, 2012

November 2011 – January 2012
Peace River, Alberta

It’s quite snowy here, and the hills in and around town difficult to drive. Banff was much easier. I see from the news that Edmonton had a bad time of it during the first snow and ice. I am, however, forced, if somewhat reluctantly, to admit that the sight of the frosted forests and the great mists that rise from the black river are fine to regard. Probably the sort of thing Sibelius would have liked, watching the migrating geese as he came to the morning after the evening’s food, intellectual ruminations, and too much drink at Ainola. There’s a great deal of good to be said about the needs and worth of art.

Peace River, 99th Street, 16 December 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Peace River, 99th Street, 16 December 2011 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

I should also add that, in my dreams one night, you my friends, my wife, and I were sitting at a most marvellous restaurant patio on the French side of the Pyrenees, sipping a particularly nice pale green Grenache wine that was excellently pétillant. I regret I cannot recall what we ordered for dinner.

So, thank you, for pointing me to the shards of what may be Sibelius’s 8th: It is undoubtedly his music, the suspensions lying higher than before, the ostinati truncated. I felt an uncanny frisson run through my skin.

You know I have long admired Cohen’s work: His speech at Asturias is a wonderful blend of confession, longing, and gratitude. I think it’s the first I still need to work on, starting with better discovering what it is that lies within this prelude before death.

I at last completed reading Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent but amazingly dense book on Caravaggio, in whom, because of my writings, I have a special interest. The Beheading of John the Baptist was painted in 1608 for the Knights of the Order of St. John in Malta, and is the only signed painting of Caravaggio’s, and the signature is in John’s blood. Five years earlier, said the painter in 1603: che chi lodar si vole si maledice—Men like to attack those whom they should really be praising. I have also been reading on Shostakovich and Wagner, and in Hesse, Aeschylus, Wedekind, Lorca, and Synge. And, I have worked my way through a study of all the fifteen string quartets of Shostakovich.

Like many small towns, Peace River can be deadening, but every once in a while one encounters something unexpected. I went to a new barber one day, and had not only an excellent cut but also an excellent conversation about Middle Eastern politics, the situations in Syria and Gaza, the need for a Palestinian homeland, the beauty of Damascus and the Beka’a Valley, and the Lebanese economy.

As you know, we spent Christmastide in Peace River. Although my wife had decorated the condo cheerfully, and we had fine food and drink (beef tenderloin on Christmas with the St-Émilion, Alaskan king crab with a very good Henkell blanc de blancs on New Year’s, preceded by an incredible hors d’oeuvre that my wife fashioned from goat cheese, crushed nuts, dates, and prosciutto), I could not evade thinking that this is the last Christmas I ever want to spend in a small and isolating town.

The condominium we are in is actually in a light industrial area. The Peace River bridge is nearby downstream, and Riverfront Park is visible from the window of the small studio where I write. A skating rink has been put in by the gazebo, and Christmas lights, on the shapes of English characters in top hats and bonnets circle it. It does look rather nice in the dark. The park area was the original riverboat landing for the town, where the York boats, with provisions and goods, and the sternwheelers, with passengers, and the ferries, from across the river from the ecclesiastical missions and early farm gardens, would fetch up.

Inauspiciously, the town has not taken much care of itself, and unfortunate governance during the last quarter century has exacerbated the decline. There are many brownfields and several derelict institutional buildings. Opportunistic development on the west hill, across the bridge, has permitted the building of big box stores, such as Wal-Mart and Home Hardware, that has essentially gutted the old down town on the east side. Many of these developments have been consequent of arrangements based on tax deferrals, the degradation of building standards, and remarkably insufficient attention to underlying infrastructure.

The interests of the citizen seem to have been an insufficient consideration. But, unhappily, this is not unusual, as I have seen too very frequently in my public administration career across this country, especially in small towns. I would say that people deserve better, but almost none will make the effort, and civic debate is such a rarity that it is neither honoured nor listened to. It is a waste of a fine country.

It has been revelatory studying the Shostakovich string quartets on walks along the river. The warmer waters of the Smoky River empty into the Peace, and at sunrise raise fog, through which the morning sun shines with great brilliance. Some days the trees are beautiful with frost, the ravens ink black against the snow, the waxwings an elegiac grey against the shrubbery at riverside.

Fog Bank and Sun over the Peace River, New Year’s Day, 2012 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

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