Water of the Spirits, Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park, Alberta

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As I made my way around Lake Minnewanka, words from Marilynne Robinson’s great novel, “Housekeeping”, provided a narrative text to accompany my journey around the perimeter of the frozen lake.

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“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–-peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking.”

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The novel, her first, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has been described as luminous, haunting, drowned in water and light. It’s perhaps my favorite novel, having read it at least eight times since it’s publication in 1980.

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“For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.”

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Stepping out onto the icy shores of Lake Minnewanka, walking gingerly across its frozen surface, your senses are sharpened and acutely engaged, on alert for impending danger. The ice creaks and groans, seemingly under every step. But, you can not stop. The silence and the loneliness compels you to take one more step and then another. You are as light as a bird or a field mouse, if one was awake in this glacial deep freeze.

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“If there had been snow I would have made a statue, a woman to stand along the path, among the trees. The children would have come close, to look at her. Lot’s wife was salt and barren, because she was full of loss and mourning, and looked back. But here rare flowers would gleam in her hair, and on her breast, and in her hands, and there would be children all around her, to love and marvel at her for her beauty, and to laugh at her extravagant adornments, as if they had set the flowers in her hair and thrown down all the flowers at her feet, and they would forgive her, eagerly and lavishly, for turning away, though she never asked to be forgiven. Though her hands were ice and did not touch them, she would be more than mother to them, she so calm, so still, and they such wild and orphan things.”

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Scraping away the surface of light snow reveals an icy layer of unfathomable depth. The lake, under its frozen surface, gives off a symphony of plaintive tones. You can hear it moaning, a soft wailing, as though ancient spirits are pleading for release from its icy depths.

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“Because, once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery.”

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Excerpts From: Robinson, Marilynne. “Housekeeping.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.

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