Rose and Stanley came to think of their quest as a search for the Great Canadian Story or, employing the kind of terminology they preferred, the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga, the pluralistic story, the story that includes the myriad stories, small and large, the “trees” and other creatures that together make up the Canadian “forest”. “One may not be able to see the Forest for the Trees,” they would intone to one another and to their children when the time came, “but you can find the Forest through the Trees.” And so they set off on precisely that kind of mission.
They decided they would have to be careful about how they entered the forest, in order to prevent their route from influencing their interpretation. A rigorously random entry would solve that problem, which is difficult to do with a real forest, but much easier with a book, even one in four volumes with 2,736 pages, like The Canadian Encyclopedia (1988). They wanted to be able to locate a particular entry on a particular page, to start their exploration randomly on any particular day. For complicated reasons having to do with William Blake (and others), they needed it to be built of fours, or multiples of four. Explanation of that peculiarity will have to wait. The method worked like this:
The easiest and most portable random number generator is a coin. The number of times it is flipped yields a binary number; the one they needed had to be larger in maximum value than 2,736, the number of pages in the book. After some exploration they settled on eight flips of the coin, to which they would add four zeros, yielding a binary number whose maximum value is 4,080. They then, in their first actual trial, flipped their coin eight times (the coin was a 2019 Canada 5-cent piece with an aging queen on one side and a beaver on the other), added their four zeros, and came up with 110011000000, which is 3,264 in decimal notation. They then divided that by 4,080 and multiplied the resulting fraction by 2,736, yielding 2,188.8. Their entry into the forest would therefore be the first one after 80% of the way through page 2188 of The Canadian Encyclopedia, a spot both as precise and as random as anyone could wish, and wonderful in its result.
The entry revealed itself to be “Transportation in the North”, written by one Robert Bothwell. Now if you were looking for an omen, as Rose and Stanley certainly were, it would be hard to beat that one, Stanley and Rose being experienced northern voyagers of both the actual and the armchair variety, and much entranced by the romanticism of the experiences in all their variety. Not only that, but Stanley remembered Robert Bothwell from their mutual days as undergraduates. Their first essay into the forest yielded most pleasing connections, or, as they liked to call them: Ramifications.
They then set out to ramify “Transportation in the North”, using the links in the entry and the resources of the internet and their own minds. This of course led them straight into the Fur Trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Canoes, which they immediately ramified into exploration, trade, and transport by water; canoes, york boats, and voyageurs; and the heavily symbolic reality that modern transportation in the North began because men, for whatever reason, were prepared to sail or paddle up-stream, against the current, into the unknown, and to accept the inherent risks and difficulties, including the probability that they would have to get out and walk, hauling their boats after them, along with the risk that they might not survive to coast back home downstream later. Transportation in the North, regardless of its mode, was not for the faint of heart until modern airlines began to fly there. As for the strength of heart needed for some transportation in the North even nowadays, ask the truck drivers who venture the ice roads to the diamond mines in winter, or even anyone who drives the highway to Fort McMurray, although now twinned, and with proper shoulders, and no longer what it was.
“Now there’s a piece of the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga!” exclaimed Stanley. “Or at least one of its mighty branches.”
“It would have to be the exploring-developing one,” replied Rose. “The money-seeking one, the conquering-Nature one, the populating the country with immigrants one, the rolling over and pushing aside the indigenous one.”
“It’s a mighty saga, and a great blessing for many, but it does look different from the other side,” agreed Stanley.
“Somehow the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga has to find room for both,” said Rose. “We must find a way to teach the children both. There’s the Conquering Saga, and the Being Conquered Saga, whether it’s Nature or people,—the Exploiting Saga and the Being Exploited Saga, and they’re all inside the borders, and the history, and the present.”
“The voyageurs are a good metaphor,” said Stanley, “both exploiters and exploited, newcomers and indigenous, noble and foolhardy, adventurous and routine, wild and tame, free and enslaved, men and pack animals, eternal and short-lived. They sang songs. An old English professor of mine sang a song about them.”
by Philip Child (1898-1978)
A voyager of lakes and windblown spruce
He breaks the misty morning, spans the noon
And dreams the midnight chuckling of the loon,
The day the night he holds in midway truce
The morning ashes are the evening gleam
His journey’s dawn and journey’s night are one.
Life is his paddle flashing in the sun
And time its swirl that eddies down the stream,
That eddies down the stream and is no more;
The swirl has vanished like the fire’s heat,
Cold, cold the fire, still the paddle beat
As still as needles on the forest floor;
Strong was the paddle thrust and quick as birth
But deep and dark and silent lies the earth.
So you see where random ramifying can take you.