I learned a lot about myself in Fort McMurray.
Around two decades ago, I lived in the boom/bust oilsands town during the awkward formative years of smart-assed kid and post-puberty cringe-meltdown. I got to see alcohol and drugs claim a lot of lives and sanity there, and near the end of my time in the city I suppose I had formed an association between a kind of salvation and getting the hell out…something many of my friends had discovered as well.
Up until about a week ago, before wildfires tore through the town, forced the total evacuation of eighty-or-so-thousand residents, and devoured hundred of buildings…my biggest regret would have been not to have been the one to light the shithole on fire myself.
But reality has this way of calling you out on your bullshit.
Truth be told, not many of my memories of Fort Mac are bad. Everyone hates those days in winter that get really, truly, savagely cold…and in summer the insect population can outnumber the humans ten-million-to-one. But it was also through the streets I learned to love mountain biking around for days on end, and the miles of trails in the surrounding woods that helped clear my mind and recharge my soul. I found more than one piece of heaven there, and made some pretty important changes to who I wanted to be thanks to the relative peace that city gave me. The parts I wished to burn away were only the ones that seemed to keep so many of my friends and family there too long…too deep into the poisoned waters of boredom, money and substance abuse that plagues nearly all cities like it. Yeah, that part I’m not sad to see go up in flames, even though realistically, I know it may only come back worse if people let it regain a foothold. I think any vitriol I have toward the long drive up North is knowing how easily it could have claimed a certain idiot kid named Fiss had he stayed much longer. It certainly wasn’t the nights camping or watching the aurora dance across the sky that I wished to burn from memory.
Some of my friends still live there. Or work there. Or travel there for pleasure and family visits on a regular basis. I suspect most who have lost their homes will not be changing that anytime soon. Unlike some of the near ghost-town exoduses from Factory cities in the USA, or coal-stained edifices of past Industrial Revolution era mega-towns in Europe, Alberta’s version of ‘bust’ seems to be a ferocious optimism and camaraderie instead of the loss of all soul in a region. Despite your political or environmentalist leanings, everyone knew when the price of Oil hit us on the down-low, it would hit cities like Fort McMurray the hardest. It’s just the nature of the beast…catering to one industry and bandaging the others that cling to it the best you can for three or more decades. But again, the soul of the place…the part that makes a squiggle and hash-tag group of streets a Home…it was never in danger of migrating to sunnier climates. It stays lived in instead of disappearing to a handful of history pages.
This is part of what makes Canada so…well…Canadian. Not the politeness or the jokes about hockey pucks, maple syrup and/or poutine. No. Our national pride and our national identity was never a grouping of troupes and memes centred around the word ‘eh’ or the Metric System. Canada…literally…means Village. We, perhaps naively, never grew beyond the thought that our family, friends and neighbours were just a few houses over. Oh, sure…we bitch about each other like any good family does, and any small town has come to perfect. Gossip and blame and jokes are easily traded. But just like Smelly Uncle Gus and the Old House that smelled of Lead Paint, the faults slowly become treasured quirks and identifying birthmarks instead of deep fissures for the use of conquering and dividing. There will always be some who disagree, but hey…that’s just life.
And like an extended family, circle of friends, or a tight-knit community, Canada comes to the aid of anyone who needs it. Alberta is no stranger to natural disasters…fires and floods seem to be the two big ones of the day…but every single time there is an outpouring of concern, of support and of love to anyone impacted. You have only to look for Mother Nature’s worst to see Humanity acting at its best. Perhaps it was because I confused growing pains for deeper sorrows that I would have once stood over the blaze with a smirk…but again…life has this way of smacking the dumb-ass out of you if you let it.
And today, on the CBC, I read that someone had commented to the tune of “Forty years of history are now erased”, citing the golden age of growth of the city of Fort Mac now being eaten by flame.
I respectfully disagree.
You cannot burn away remembrance or light family and friendship ablaze. Try to erase emotion, passion, determination, and well, ash and smoke isn’t going to cut it. The history of a city is not vaporized the moment drywall turns to cinders, no matter how many memories are linked to dents and stains and scrapes and pictures on the walls. The phantoms of a hundred-thousand stories may waft up in the up-draft around the ridiculously brave few who are still…as of this moment…still battling the blaze to save what infrastructure and homes they can. Yes, those buildings, homes, streets, and more are gone. But they are just that: smoke.
You need only to look to my friends. My family. My fellow Canadians who call that little area within the City Limits home. There you’ll get your story and preserve your history, and how dare anyone suggest that anything is destroyed so long as the people are safe.
At the start of May, 2016, the city of Fort McMurray and surrounding regions was gutted by a wildfire that threw all optimistic projections to the wind.
Nothing of value was lost.
Two souls were lost on the highway leading away from town…a tragic accident that had more to do with traffic and impatience than sparks or smoke. But value lost to the flames? All of that will be coming back after the evacuation is lifted and people can go back to their homes. Maybe their houses are still standing, maybe they aren’t. But it will still be a home. A part of our village. A part of who we are, and a damn good reminder to build up the part of the community that matters, not just extend street-signs to the horizon.
As for the concrete, brick, mortar and timber, well, yeah, that will take some money, some hard work and time to repair. But the soul of the place will already be installed and working long before the first shovel full of ash is moved and the first weeping family starts to sift through the skeleton of a duplex. By its very nature, it will be sad work but it will still get done. That’s the one thing the people of Fort McMurray never were without: a willingness to work.
I learned a lot about myself thanks to Fort McMurray. And while I no longer call it home, I’m still proud to be part of the same village.
Your village stands ready and with you, Fort Mac.
=- Studio Shinnyo 2016. Khattam-Shud, EOF.Posted under Manifestoes