While the Bannock Bakes: On walking & poetry

January 24, 2014 in North America, Travelogue, United States


Winter has come, in earnest.

And with it, bitter cold. Blackwater Creek, which rushes just below the window where I’m  wrapped in a down blanket with a cup of hot tea for comfort, is shivering. The children are joking about importing a few penguins to line the ice shelf hemming in the banks, for visual interest.

It has been a week of unpacking, and baking. It’s been a week of hugging, and laughing, and long evenings around bottles of mead. It’s been a week of movie nights, dinner parties and guests. It’s been a week of analog life, one moment connected to the next by cups of tea, the sounds of teenagers coming and going, eggs delivered, one at a time in mittened hands, and the crunch of snow beneath synchronous boots.

 As long as I can walk, I can center myself. It’s the first thing I do in a new place: take a walk. I have to get my bearings, physically and emotionally, in a place. I have to see beyond the topography and the generalities of the surface of the map. I have to add the texture, the nuance of colour and light, the subtleties of scent and the taste of the air to the broad brush strokes of time and place. The world is best absorbed at a walking pace, with as little as possible between the soles of my feet and the dirt of the path. Of course it is winter, and so I settled for boots.

We talked as we walked, laughed a little, and then fell silent, listening to the squeak of the snow, the rustle of wind through clinging oak leaves a death rattle that makes me doubt the arrival of spring. A bunny hopped across the path behind us. We kept walking to keep warm.

A pine forest in winter is a magical place.

The heady warm scent of evergreen in summer is replaced by the bright, fresh smell of a scratch and sniff square in a children’s Christmas book I had when I was little. The snow, swirling in snow globe style, settled in the tiniest crooks between needles, like frozen fairy dust, turning into big fluffy dollops of whipped cream as the hours pass. Along the path it sparkles like a rainbow: crystalline pink, blue, purple, yellow and green. Coyote tracks cross the path and we stop to examine them, discussing the local population, and then, there is howling. I love the sound of howling in the forest. Lee does not. Apparently there have been coyote attacks in Cape Breton in recent years. We keep walking.

He broke the silence with his maritime brogue:

“We’ve shared the same camp-fire and tent for nigh on seven year,
And never had a word that wasn’t cheering and serene.
We’ve halved the toil and split the spoil, and borne each other’s packs;
By all the Wild’s freemasonry we’re brothers, tried and true;
We’ve swept on danger side by side, and fought it back to back,
And you would die for me, old pal, and I would die for you.”

I smiled. “What’s that from?”

While the Bannock Bakes.”

“Robert Service?”

“Of course!” he grinned, and then dove in from the beginning:

“Light up your pipe again, old chum, and sit awhile with me;

I’ve got to watch the bannock bake…”


I lost myself in the story, and his voice as the New Hamsphire forest became the Yukon and the smell of bannock baking wafted from a cabin we passed as we trudged onward. And then I jumped as he grabbed my arm and pointed into the bush…

“Hist! see those willows silvering where swamp and river meet!
Just reach me up my rifle quick; that’s Mister Moose, I know —
There now, I’VE GOT HIM DEAD TO RIGHTS . . . but hell! we’ve lots to eat
I don’t believe in taking life — we’ll let the beggar go.”


…and laughed as I realized it was part of the poem. 

Our feet matched the meter and I floated in the story until the very end, laughing at the twist of fate:

“ …the “doctor chap” . . . was ME. . . .”


Poetry is a bridge between souls, and reciting it aloud is something we’ve shared from childhood. I breathed in the forest and the friendship as we turned towards home, noses pink with cold.

We walked through the cemetery, reading names and years off of weathered stones dating from the early 1800s. We wondered aloud about the ghosts and the ruins of the old mill still standing in the middle of the creek. Many feet have passed this way before us and there are stories hemmed in by farm fences and forest paths.

It has been a year of close quarters:

Traveling light, living on the road, 126 square feet in an RV for six months, urban houses and tenting in the Outback. It feels good to spread out into almost three bedrooms with a giant kitchen and the patchwork quilt of New England farm life unfolding around us.

  • It feels good to hear coyotes instead of neighbours.
  • It feels good to wake to the sound of rushing water instead of traffic.
  • It feels good to walk seven and a half kilometers and not see another soul and to have explored it with one of the people who’s loved me longest and best.
  • It feels good to be surrounded by space, literal and figural, physical and emotional.

It is clear, after only a week, that this place will be a place of refuge and rejuvenation, for us, and hopefully for every single person who crosses our threshold.


Need a walk? Come on over, I know a great forest path…