One morning three weeks ago, in the Okanagan Valley in the Canadian Rockies, my wife and I woke in our son’s makeshift but comfortable camper van and looked out to see, between us and distant snow-capped mountains, a vast lake glittering and winking in the sun.

“On the shores of Gitche Gumee, / Of the shining Big-Sea-Water . . .” recited I, two of the few lines I know of Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha.

I recalled them again this morning when I looked out at the shining Small-Pond-Water in our backyard, and saw a grey heron standing statuesquely alongside. It was, of course, our ‘familiar’ Ron.

‘Familiar’ sounds like a haunting spirit; before we left for Canada, he had become that. He had fledglings in the nest and, dawn to dark, he would harass us for food, take it away and come back for more. When we were in Canada, our neighbours fed him. The Hanlys are kind people. While I sometimes felt like putting a foot to his rump, they’d never entertain the thought.

People pay for plaster herons to stand sentry beside their ponds. We didn’t have to buy our sentry, but we paid for him in takeaways. However, we’ve never had to buy a terrier to keep away rats. One of the first things he did, once fledged, was to catch and swallow a rat that had the temerity to trespass on our garden. Not a rat has been seen since, and that was six years ago.

In Canada, we saw totem poles of north-western First Nations tribes. In this month’s Sherkin Comment magazine, Matt Murphy, director/editor, quotes a letter from a chief of the Suquamish tribe of Washington/British Columbia to the president of the USA. In it, “. . . he pleads with the white man to be Good Stewards of the land they took from his people”.

It is a heart-rending and prophetic document, still relevant 160 years after it was written. The white man has, indeed, raped the land. Read it at

The Sherkin Comment, as always, publishes material relevant far beyond its West Cork island home.

Regarding First Nation Canadians, there is an area of green, clean, glittering Vancouver where the one-time totem-pole makers go. It’s called Gastown, but it’s no fun. In this small area of the shining city, one sees many First Nation casualties, souls and minds disorientated for one reason or another. Many are shooting up bad drugs, drinking bad alcohol, anaesthetising despair by any means possible. If one wants to see descendants of the original Canadians, Gastown is the place.

We know that, worldwide, many aboriginal (i.e. indigenous) peoples suffer a marginalised fate — aboriginals in Australia, ‘native Americans’ in the US, Eskimos/Inuits in the Arctic Circle, Nenents in the Russian Arctic swopping their reindeers’ hides for vodka, peoples whose cultures have been swept away in the ongoing march of planetary domination by First World lifestyles.

There are, of course, many individual and community exceptions to this generalised tragedy but it is evident that First Nations people are disproportionate among the casualties, despite latter-day efforts — in Canada and elsewhere —to compensate them for loss of land and culture. They were once (and many still are) proud, intelligent people, deeply spiritual in their relationship with nature and superbly adapted to their environment.

They had, and some still have, an encyclopaedic knowledge of its flora, fauna, weather, skies, rivers, lakes and oceans. I once read that almost 200 plants used by native Americans have been used in our modern pharmacopoeia.

How unfortunate it is that so many indigenous people are lost souls, living out their lives in distress. We hope that all of the new generation will find harmony in our world while keeping the body and soul-nurturing elements of theirs.

In the Okanagan Valley, the land is nurtured by its custodians. We woke to the glittering ‘Gitche Gumee’ because the night before we had missed our campsite and the farmer whom we asked for directions invited us to stay at a serviced site on his land for half the fee.

It was 10 at night but he and his daughter were still working. Alan Gatzke, of Polish origin, with an Irish grandmother who had a ticket for the Titanic in 1912 but was quarantined because she had a cold and, so, missed the fateful boat, grows 60 species of fruit at the farm at Oyama, in Lake Country, owned by his family for 70 years.

The family has a farm shop and sells fruit, preserves, conserves and bakery under their family name. I think I’ve never drunk finer apple juice. The kindness of strangers.


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