The interpreter was leading a class of Grade 2s and their tag-along parents into the woods. Judging from the makes of the vehicles that had paraded into the parking lot, this group was from a wealthy community. In the interpreter’s backpack there were fine-meshed nets, drop cloths, and bug jars. Today was to be an invertebrate program, which would involve the flipping of logs, raking of leaf-litter, and shaking of shrubs to discover what tiny creatures lived within the nooks and crannies of the forest.
He crouched to spread a metre-square white cloth beneath a salmonberry bush. “Now watch this,” he said. He shook the bush for five seconds. When he stopped, the drop cloth was crawling with dozens of tiny spiders, a few small, green caterpillars and several minuscule, twisting, glistening nematodes.
"Quick, someone hand me a bug jar." He reached back, expecting one of the little plastic jars to be plunked into his open palm. But nothing happened. He turned around. The children were either struggling to pull on latex gloves, or were waiting to receive a pair from one of three mothers circulating among them, handing them out.
“No-no,” said the interpreter. “There’s no need to wear gloves! You should be touching things with your hands.” He reached and shook the bush again. “Touch it.” He held out a branch to the nearest child, who was not yet gloved.
The child made a frightened noise and ran to one of the glove-mothers.
“What are you so afraid of? It’s just...nature.” He scooped up a handful of leaf litter, and then let it fall through his fingers. “See? Dirt won’t hurt you.”
“Of course it’s dirty.”
“What do you mean, ‘Eeeeeew’?”
The interpreted stood up and brushed his hands on his pants. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“North Van,” said several, as the glove-mothers kept on gloving.
“Isn't there dirt in North Van?”
“No,” they said.
"I’m pretty sure there is."
"No," said a girl. "We have a clean neighbourhood."
“Don’t you have gardens?”
“We have many gardens,” said one of the mothers.
“Don’t you plant bulbs, pull weeds, prune the bushes? Don’t you ever touch anything?”
“We have gardeners,” said a boy. “They touch our dirt for us.”
“Can we go out?” asked another.
“Uh, we are out,” said the interpreter.
“No, I mean out of the forest.”
* * *
Once, in Fairy Times, Douglas firs a thousand years old and three hundred feet tall grew in what is now the West End of Vancouver. By the end of the twentieth century, with almost the same spacing, three hundred foot-tall apartment buildings thirty-five years old were turning green in the damp. Where, not long before, elk rutted and grazed and gave birth, people lived atop each other, shopped for fine handbags, and hunted desperately for parking.
Beyond the West End a wilderness remained, the densely forested Stanley Park, separated from the hi-rise hub-bub by a small body of water, Lost Lagoon. The lagoon was once a tidal bay off the Burrard Inlet, and even now it is easy to imagine the park as an island, low at the Lagoon, and rising north and west to the towering cliffs at Prospect Point, where the rickety old bridge crosses to the North Shore. Sometime in the 1930s a dike was built across the mouth of the bay and a roadway was placed on top. Thus the causeway was created, an aorta from the heart of the city to the Lion's Gate Bridge, and onward to the mountains and chair lifts.
The day after Alan re-entered William’s life, they went to Stanley Park. It seemed to William a logical thing to do. How better to introduce a newcomer to Vancouver than to take him to one of the most spectacular urban forests on the planet? They parked on a quiet side street in the West End, and William chose a path that led from the foot of Barclay Street to the lagoon. Halfway along, Alan noted the minefield of goose poop on the grass. "It’s clear what they think of this place," he said. They stepped cautiously to the paved walkway surrounding the 10-acre pond, behind which the darkened woods loomed high and mysterious. From beyond the treetops came the shrill and whistly babble of an eagle.
Scattered on the surface of the water were hundreds of two-tone blips of goldeneye and scaup, mostly near the northern side. Following along the near shore were shameless mallards, mute swan bullies, and absurd coots, who were squawking, tooting and biting each other, fighting for position, expecting morsels.
Alan was carrying a pair of binoculars he had taken from the trunk of Fooj’s car. There were three pairs rolling around, and he chose those seeming the least damaged, the only functional flaw being the absence of a strap, meaning he had to carry them in his hand.
"No problem," said Alan, and then he spoke at length: “Aside from looking at birds, bird-watchers use binoculars strung about their necks as a perversely proud advertisement of their dubious hobby. Despite the recent increase in popularity of birding, it remains dubious, not my style. So, to distance myself from the likes of them, of you, I grip binoculars in my hand, perhaps about to slam-dunk them into the next garbage can. I believe fiercely wrapping one’s fist around several pounds of metal and glass exudes a touch of menace, which is my style. My intent is to convey to bird-watchers — birders — that I’m not one of them, that they annoy me."
“That was a good speech,” said William. He was scanning the waterfowl left and right, seeking breaks in the pattern, the off ones, the interesting ones. There were two common mergansers whose broad white breasts glowed almost peach in the low-angled light. A tiny pied-billed grebe was diving and resurfacing below overhanging vegetation at the opposite shore. He said, "You can throw those binos in the pond if you want. I doubt Fooj will miss them.”
“Maybe I shall,” said Alan. “If I have to.”
“There’s a nice male canvasback over there.”
“Where?” Alan raised his binoculars.
“Made you look, birder,” said William.
“Just checking your ID,” said Alan.
“You’ve never painted ducks."
"No, and I never will.”
William already knew that Alan never painted birds. He had once read a magazine article about Alan in which he explained that bird artists were common and had a very long history, since the early days of natural history. He painted reptiles, amphibians, fish and even insects, but was best-known by far for his paintings of mammals. Alan maintained that mammal artists were much less common than bird artists, and that very few were any good at all. There were two reasons. One was that mammals are more difficult to observe than birds. But really, fur was the real obstacle. It both hides posture, and embellishes it. Fur is difficult to paint. Feathers present challenges, especially down feathers – because they’re like fur – but the wing and tail feathers are relatively few and lie flat. They’re little more challenging than the boards of a boathouse or barn. In fur there are subtle changes in texture and tone that differ if the creature's head is up, down, or to the side. It’s often plain to see that the fur has been done wrong, without having any better idea of how to get it right — leave alone trying to hang it over a living animal. Density, length, layering... and then there’s the problem of fur overlapping an object, or worse, an object overlapping fur. A marten running along a branch with spruce branchlets extending in front of and behind it is a tough one to do.
The magazine writer asked him how he learned to paint fur. Alan said, “I’ve never thought it through. Thinking was not my gift. I had a feel. I felt it.” The person asked if he meant he felt it spiritually. Alan said “No, I really imagine feeling it in my hands, the fur that is, and once it feels right, I can paint it.” Reading that, William knew that Alan had been bullshitting, seeing if the writer would lap it up. There was no “feel” involved. He was simply a very good painter.
Alan was invariably compared to Robert Bateman, still held by many to be Canada’s greatest wildlife artist. Had Alan been the older of the two, Bateman would have been compared to Alan, and, William believed, not favorably. Alan took the genre farther, verging on surrealism, but so subtly that rarely would anyone point out where he had crossed the line. It was sometimes said that the faces on his animals betrayed emotional qualities that real animals would never show. Alan shrugged that off. “I paint what I see. Maybe others aren’t looking closely enough.”
Alan was called Robert Bateman on caffeine. William thought that perhaps it would have been equally fair to call Bateman, ‘Alan Lennox Decaf.’
Alan once said, about Bateman, whom he claimed to admire, “He’s a bird painter. He is an excellent bird painter, but a bird painter nonetheless.”
"Oh shit," Alan said. "Hide your binos. Oh shit, too late. The fat guy in the collar’s made us."
Someone William knew, sort of, sidled up. He nodded to William and glanced at Alan suspiciously. "I forget your name," he said.
"That’s okay, you have short-term memory loss," William said.
"I have short-term mem... oh, I must have told you before."
"My name is William, William Kendall," William said.
"I believe that," he said.
William turned to Alan. "This is Milt. He’s a regular birder here at the lagoon. He has short-term memory loss from an accident." Milt had his binoculars around his neck, up high on his barrel chest. He was wearing a cervical collar, which made him look neckless, and large, square-framed glasses. Milt was studying Alan’s face, and then the back of Alan’s head, because Alan was pretending to look at something that wasn’t there, flying high above Coal Harbour.
"Who’s that guy? I can’t remember his name either," Milt said to William.
"Who, me?" Alan said, turning. "You haven’t forgotten my name. You never knew me."
"No," said Milt. "I know your name, but I forget it."
"Have it your way," said Alan. "My name is William, William Kendall."
"That doesn’t ring a bell," said Milt. His eyes shifted down at Alan’s binoculars and his face showed concern or interest that they were in the wrong place. Then he asked, "Got anything?"
“See? That’s what I mean," said Alan.
"What?" said Milt.
"I find it annoying when you bird-watchers say, "Got anything?" It means, have you seen any noteworthy birds today? It’s a clubby thing, which I don’t like. It usually also means that you’ve seen something good, and want to brag about it.”
Now Milt looked annoyed. He squinted at Alan, and then said, big-eyed, "Oh, it’s YOU."
“The painter, Alan what’s-his-name.”
William was surprised. In sunglasses and ball cap, Alan was movie-star incognito. He wasn’t sure he would have recognized him that quickly had he entered the nature house so accessorized. Milt’s mittens attacked each other until the right one fell off. His handshake left Alan wiping his palm on his thigh.
“I’m Milt Harvey,” he said.
“Yeah, right. Great to meet you. I’ve got your books. I love your paintings.”
“I didn’t know you lived in Vancouver.”
“Well I don’t. I’ve just recently arrived. This is my first time to Stanley Park”
“You’ve never been here before — to Stanley Park?” William realized Alan’s mistake before he did. Now Milt probably wanted to show him the entire 1,000 acres, but he was still set on listing his good birds. "Well, for starters, there's a duck with the extra head feather, in among the common ones, over there.” Milt pointed across the water.
William translated: “There’s a tufted duck among the scaups over there.” Milt could identify birds, but was unable to remember their names.
“Several with the neck rings too."
“Ring-necked ducks,” William said.
Milt nodded and pointed to the northeast corner of the lagoon. William lifted his binoculars and had a look, but it was too far to pick out the rarities. “I also know where there’s an owl. The one with black eyes. Want to see it?”
Off to see the barred owl, they walked along the southern shore of the lagoon, where raccoons came out from gaps in blackberry brambles and pawed at their pant-cuffs. Milt dug into his pocket and produced pink and yellow cat-snacks, which the raccoons patti-caked against the dirt with their grey hands. They had eyes like black buttons. In a hushed voice, Milt said, “Against Park by-laws to feed ‘em.” He looked around, “but as long as it’s nutritious, what’s the big deal?” A raccoon climbed halfway up a baby stroller and a woman screamed and poked it with her umbrella. Milt shrugged.
They walked to a little stone bridge at the west end of the pond, where there was an island covered with scrubby willows, alders and dogwood. There were more raccoons here, and a woman of indeterminate age beneath a rain hood, hand-feeding smelts to a pair of great blue herons. This William had never seen before. He was amazed at how tame the animals were, how habituated to human handouts. Then they saw something that took the cake. A teen-aged girl was crouching at the water’s edge. In her outstretched hand was a large, flocculent mass, a snow-white jumbo marshmallow. Something big swam up and took it in its teeth. A beaver! It swam to the little island, crouched and ate.
Milt said, “That little lady has been with us for six weeks.” He was referring to the beaver. “She must have got washed out to sea in the last freshet, then swam ashore here.” Again he took on a hushed tone. “The Parks people, they’re trying to get rid of her, ‘cause she’s chewing on the willow trees along the north side of the lagoon.”
“And marshmallows,” Alan said.
“They try to snap-trap her to drown her, but I and a couple others watch ‘em and set off the traps after they leave. We take the traps when we think we can without getting caught. They’re useless.” (He was referring to the Parks workers.) “We like the beaver.”
“Why not,” said Alan.
“Now they want to shoot her.”
“Night shift. They can’t walk around in broad daylight with a rifle, now, can they? So they drive up and down the pathways at dusk and hope to catch a glimpse, when no one’s looking. But we’re onto them.”
“Good for you,” said Alan.
“Say,” he said, “You’ve painted beavers.”
This was true. Alan had produced a series of beaver paintings. One hung in Canada House in London. Another was in the embassy in Moscow. Alan had exploited an untapped market for expensive beaver art — Canadian foreign offices.
“Maybe you could paint this one! Make her famous! Then they’d have to save her! Like the pig and the spider story!”
Alan answered with a question. “Why don’t the Parks people live-trap the beaver and relocate it?”
Milt turned his back and headed for the bridge. At the crest he turned and said, “Because releasing a beaver in an unfamiliar habitat would cause undue stress on the animal and most likely lead to its death.”
“I see,” Alan said.
“No, not really.”
They went into the woods, among hemlocks and Douglas firs whose branches filled the sky, to a crossroads of several well-beaten trails. There they stopped. William asked Milt, "Is this where the owl’s supposed to be?"
"Owl?" he said. "What owl?"
"You’re terrific," Alan said to Milt.
Milt put his binoculars to his eyes and looked way up. Then he said, "Ow!" and leaned forward, rubbing his neck. He reached into his bulging front pockets and pulled out two plastic bags filled with bird seed. "Oo, these get so heavy," he said.
"C’mon Milt, let’s go back to the pond," William said, and they walked back, Alan and William abreast, Milt shuffling along behind, occasionally talking to himself. At the edge of the park they said good bye to Milt. He seemed to have forgotten who William was again, but he knew Alan. "Alan Lennox, you will do everything in your power to save the beaver, the national symbol of our land, won’t you." It wasn’t a question.
"Sure," said Alan. "Thanks for showing us the owl. It was spectacular."
As they crossed from the park, back into the concrete valleys of the West End, Alan said, "Everyone here is insane."
"And here you are."
"Where are the mountains?"
Alan had decided he would rent an apartment, month to month. They found one a block from the park, in a new building with floor-to-ceiling windows. The living room faced west: Park, English Bay, Ocean, Gulf Islands. Only one row of even newer buildings cut the panorama into sectors. It was a place few could afford. The rent was twice the monthly mortgage payments on Alan’s Bay Street condo in Toronto. It had two bedrooms and three toilets.
"I’m a man of three toilets," said Alan.
"So many choices," said William.
Most people have to provide a landlord with proof of employment and statement of income. Alan walked into a bookstore, bought copies of both of his books, and showed his picture on the jacket flaps to the property manager, a tough lady named Iris with an etched face and a smoker’s voice.
Iris said, “You’re a famous person. My husband will want to meet you.” She was flipping pages, lost in his pictures.
“I’m not famous, not really,” Alan said. “When can I move in?”
She waved her hand in the air. He moved in that afternoon — opened the door and dropped his suitcase on the floor. They went onto the balcony. To the north was a rip in the clouds, and the hint of dark forms lurking within. "That’s the mountains," William said.
Alan yelled, “Show yourselves!"