I had a dream last night that I was standing on the end of a dock with some friends and family and we were proclaiming our existence to the world. We were singing and yelling into the open space and standing on the edge of nature’s glorious abundance. This is a strange image now that I live here in the prairies. Calgary has very little water, few lakes, and hardly any docks. But my childhood was a series of docks and they represent a history for me that goes beyond metaphor and dreams.
Growing up in Northern Ontario on an island meant that docks were a huge part of my life. Some of my earliest memories were of our local beach and the two floating docks that they put in for the public swimming area. The first dock was in shallow water where I could still stand with my head above the surface. The second dock was placed out deep enough for shallow diving. Fish congregated under the second dock as a shelter from birds of prey. My swimming progression earned me the permission to swim out “at the second dock” and it was a milestone and rite of passage.
At another location in town there were boat docks, “the wharf” as we called it. As a teenager my friends and I swam there diving off the high docks into the water about eight feet below. The water was very deep there for safe passage of boats and the deep water was a milky green. The beams of the wharf docks were slime covered. We scrambled up them as fast as we could to escape their jelly-like texture that we were sure harboured the unspeakable things of imagination and horror.
The docks that hold the most memories though were the docks at our cabins. My parents and friends had cabins, some in deep wilderness, that all had a dock. These docks were a huge part of my childhood. I can remember running down to the dock to announce to the empty lake and forest our arrival at the cabin. My friends and I would sing O Canada at the top of our lungs and wake up the loons and even other cottagers as our song burst into the darkness.
We ran down to the dock to welcome the men home from fishing. We ran down to the dock after soaking in the heat of the sauna and plunged ourselves into the cool water. We jumped and dove and splashed on docks for hours. And later we sat on the end of the dock with our own children and watched them learn to dive and throw their bodies unabashedly into nature’s playground. The dock was like nature’s kitchen. It was a gathering place, a hearth, and a stage for memories.
Our docks also taught us things about the world. They were hardly invincible. Despite the fact that they had cribs built and filled with tons of rock, the winter ice would lift and push our docks around like a tiny wooden toys. Mother Nature reminded us again and again that our structures were not her structures and that her power could easily destroy anything we built. We repaired them each spring and we adjusted by building shorter docks with floating extensions that were hauled to shore in the winter.
So what was the draw of standing on the end of a dock? We were thrusting ourselves out away from the shore. We were extending ourselves out onto the water as far as possible to meet the edge of nature and surround ourselves in its beauty. Our feet were on a solid man-made foundation but our bodies were exposed and immersed in nature’s expanse.
Docks are symbolic to me. They represent the need for man to permeate nature. They remind us of the power of the elements and our need to respect them. And they represent the boundary we have between immersion in nature and our separation from it.
I long for the days I could run up to the edge of nature and have my own voice echo back to me as it reverberated off the other shore. I now live an insulated life in our city home, office buildings, and heated cars. At every turn I can see us trying to stamp out nature with pavement and infrastructure. We fool ourselves with the security of our brick buildings and obscenely tall office towers. But I am reminded of my childhood lessons. Our structures are not her structures. We are standing on a weak foundation exposed to her power. But we are also trying desperately to find our small place at the edge of her expanse.