Article: Hobos, Hermits and Drifters: Three Short Films Starring Wise Loners of the Canadian Bush
Films: Nahanni, directed by Donald Wilder
David and Bert, directed by Daryl Duke
Man Who Chooses the Bush, directed by Tom Radford
Being just a wee bit homesick, when I got the email notification that the NFB was offering three old shorts about wilderness solitaries for free viewing online I was like a tabby in a catnip patch. The fact that Vancouver Island’s Bert Clayton, one of these “wise loners,” wears the same plaid jacket my dad used to wear to stack wood (and which I often borrowed to stack wood myself) was icing on the cake, easing the homesick blues for a few happy hours.
Living in a foreign country can make a Canadian especially aware of the things that make Canada unique? something easier sensed than explained, but these three documentaries do much to distil the essence of “Canadianness,” making it salient enough to take it apart and analyze it a little.
So what might be eight best qualities of Canadians, as exemplified in these three documentaries?
1. A willingness to embrace solitude: “I can stay out here for a year without seeing a soul. That doesn’t bother me at all,” says Frank Ladouceur, a Cree trapper who camps and traps muskrat near the Athabasca River. “If I die out here in the bush, I’ll die happy, not in a hospital.”
2. The patience to endure hardship indefinitely in the pursuit of a difficult goal: In Nahanni a man in his seventies practically moves mountains in a search of precious metal, taking a week to portage camping equipment and lumber to build a new boat, but, in the end, wilderness conditions force him to turn back. He vows to return again and again until he finds gold.
3. The valuing of ancient knowledge and the readiness to preserve it and to pass it on: In David and Bert Vancouver Island’s David Frank lovingly embraces ancestral knowledge and is ever ready to teach First Nations youth how to survive in the bush, honour their ancestors, and treat others with kindness.
4. A sense of personal responsibility for building the country and improving on it: Bert Clayton takes joy in the thought that while living as a solitary prospector he may be “creating something other people might benefit from;” if his prospecting uncovers a gold mother lode, for example, it would create needed jobs.
5. A love of nature and a belief that living in harmony with it is a kind of spiritual practice:
Every one of these wilderness solitaries is clearly a highly spiritual being, rejecting a world that they see as compromising their personal integrity. “I don’t think anyone could be more contented with his life as I’ve been,” says Bert Clayton. “The very thought of living harmoniously amongst the animals in the woods and the tinder in the bush? that seems to give me a great sense of satisfaction.”
6. A cheery outlook in spite of difficult living conditions: “I love living,” Clayton says. “I’d do it all again.” David Frank’s face carries all the joy of a Buddha. And Ladouceur is so content living in the wilderness that he stays there alone most of the time, even while his family lives in town.
7. Respect for other cultures: Having just listened to a BBC broadcast in which various Europeans were quite freely denigrating the Roma people, it struck me that this kind of talk simply wouldn’t be acceptable in polite Canadian circles. And the very fact that even old NFB docs took pains to include First Nations voices in the discussion of wilderness, granting a venerating view of aboriginal peoples and their history, is evidence of the Canadian penchant for social harmony.
8. “Ingenility:” Okay, this is a word my grandpa made up, but It’s such a perfect way of describing homespun problem-solving that I have to use it. Clayton demonstrates ingenility with a self-designed mousetrap that sends mice to their doom by luring them onto a wheel and then dumping them into a barrel. There are many other examples in our history: Tommy Douglas, to cite one, also demonstrated ingenility when he developed the Canadian medicare system. Ingenility is the opposite of sitting around waiting for someone else to fix something for you.
If You’re not demonstrating any of these qualities, maybe It’s time to spend some time alone, reflecting on the Canadian wilderness. Watching these three films can help get you started.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.