Thursday, February 26, 2009

You'd Probably Have To Live Here To Understand It

"Bears stink. They are really smelly but thlathla, it smells worse."

I, like my young students, sat on the round carpet, drinking in yet another thlathla story. Initially we'd heard a cautionary tale, a typical "boogeyman" story of this culture. Now, however, our tiny, exquisitely wrinkled storyteller had a different look in her eyes. As she now told us the stories brought back by local hunters or fishermen, a look of a deep-seated belief and uncomfortableness shimmered in the depths. The students all leaned forward a bit as we listened, a little afraid to miss an important detail. I leaned in, too. I've always believed in the possibility of Bigfoot but here, on this isolated island surrounded by ocean, mountains and thick forests, I can practically feel the breath of one on my neck.

"It was in the tree, crying like a grown up man."

She'd reached back to her youth, recalling a personal experience. You can understand the belief in her eyes. Her quiet, expressive voice plants hooks in your imagination and you're running back home beside her, trying bravely to follow the thickly-wooded path home. You can hear the weeping high in the tree. You can taste the fear on her tongue.

I'll admit, this sweet elder is a wonderful storyteller. You might even pass off the story as another wonderful rendition of her endless supply of local legends and tales. If she was the only one to tell such stories, maybe that's all you'd think, but, she's not alone. From cradle to grave there is an acceptance of the preternatural world of ghosts and unexplainable creatures in this place. Belief in the existance of the Thlathla, the Bigfoot, is second only, I think, to the belief in ghosts. I've heard stories from many people both local and not.

Thlathla goes by many names up and down this coast. Almost always tall and totally hairy by description, they have been both respected and feared by the First Nations (Native Americans) along these shores. They are known as kidnappers and eaters of people or bringers of power and wealth. It's not just the local people, though. You'll find just as many people foreign to this island return to "civilization" with tales that seem to belong on a 'tales of the supernatural' show on a scifi channel--small boulders hurled at fishingboats by furry creatures, huge, bare-footed footprints found by hunters high in the mountains, police officers who pack their bags after returning ashen-faced from a lonely patrol night. Whether the story is based on experience or local lore, being here makes you a believer. It's easy to disconnect from the unexplained in the city but here you are forced to face the primeval fear of the endless distances, impelled to look past quick, dismissive explanations.

I came to this island already a believer in the unseen world but I sit here now, typing, as a firm believer with my own unexplainable experiences of ghostly voices and giant footprints by an isolated lake. I've been friends and colleagues with people who can't explain their experiences of ghosts who speak their pet's name or hooting creatures that follow their canoe. No. I'm wrong. We all can explain but we'd be hardpressed to explain ourselves to the hardbitten people of the cities and suburbs. Being here in a land clinging to the edge of mythology is the only way to explain it. I wish I could explain the feeling more. You'd probably have to live here to truly understand it.

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