The Athabasca Waterfall lies on the Icefield Parkway. It is just there, shortly after you join the Parkway from Jasper. The water falls down a canyon and flows into a lake. The colour is turbid blue from the rock flour that the waterfall has ground down along its course. The canyon is itself surrounded by pillowy moss, lichen, saxifrage and stunted willow.
Travelling this road, in the reverse direction from two days ago, and in a different climate, the Rockies were totally different. There was something about the cloud formation, something about the slant of the sunlight, the slight chill in the air and the fact we were listening to jazz, that changed the experience.
If you can imagine Eroll Garner’s quicksilver playing, the run of notes that is like a cascade, indeed a waterfall, when he plays Misty, then you can glimpse how Athabasca waterfall looks in the light, glistening and rushing, the sound of water on rocks. The river swirls, giddy after its fall, and just as you turn to see the faint spray in the air, Errol Garner does that surprising four-beat stop that is like a lump in the throat.
There was a surfeit of Lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and poplar on our way. It was easy to mistake the poplar for silver birch, and there was even more of silver birch. But, silver birch is actually silver and it lights up especially when there is an absence of sunlight. Both the poplar and birch were now devoid of their leaves. In a sea of evergreens they stood out. But they also stood out because of their standing to attention, row upon row of them, like an army that is stock still and erect, wary of the enemy. There were sentinel trees too in the middle of a tribe of pine, possibly aspen but maybe poplar with their yellow, very mustard leaves, still clinging on. Jan said that they are like lit lampposts or lanterns in a greenfield.
The Athabasca river flows alongside the road. It glistens and flashes through the fir screen. The rippling, subtly creased surface shines somewhere between molten silver, tarnished silver, mercury and jade. Surely, this is merely a trick of light and the eye. On the other side of the road, low lying clouds wrapped around the peak of Cirrhus looked like white turbans with tasseled edges. Exactly like Dinah Washington’s breath as she sings, lilting and lifting. She was extra sensual in her life and there is in her singing, in the breathy sound, that promise of shut eyes, only half shut, mouth delicately just open, and a gasp that is at once delirious and expectant.
Tangle ridge is cloistered in clouds and the sun is working doubly hard to streak through, weak rays give the clouds an air of a windscreen that is smeared with dirty raindrops. But then across the road another range smothered in clouds has the sun shining bright, through a breach and there is even brighter reflected light, as If a giant flood light was placed at the base of the mountain range, in a large basin of water and shone upwards. Absolutely glorious.
Not on our return journey, but the other day, the road was lined by yellow mountain avens with their white cotton buds, miniature candy floss along the very edge. And upwards from the road’s edge the Athabasca glacier was a frozen static river with dirty sludge at its terminal point. It was very strange to see a river that was immobilised. It was like a magician’s trick holding the river still, by a spell known only to the initiated.
The Icefield Parkway was not a road at all but a time series of memory linked by space and music. Crowfoot glacier and Miles Davis playing Spanish guitar on trumpet. Peyto lake and Madeleine Peyroux discovered busking in a Paris metro station. That’s exactly how surprising Peyto lake is when you suddenly come upon it.
The journey between Banff and Jasper was through the most exquisite landscape ever. We took a detour through Highway 1a, and travelled through Sawback, Moose Meadows, Castle Mountain, Storm Mountain, Protection Mountain, Morant’s curve, and arrived at Lake Louise. It was a leisurely drive with mountain upon mountain on either side of us. Every bend of the road brought another unexpected vista. It was the scale of the landscape, the far horizon and the large sky that characterised the scene. This is exactly how it is in Africa, on the East African plains of the Serengeti, where one feels excruciatingly small and expendable. The message is – all this has been here forever and we forlorn humans have barely been here in the blink of an eye and will soon be gone too.
The drive on the Icefield Parkway towards Jasper was different all together. We climbed and climbed, the road weaving and turning like a river that meanders, all the time climbing higher still. The clouds were heavy and we imagined that it would snow any time now, except that the air temperature was too warm. The lowest it got throughout our passage was 9 degrees. Sometimes we were driving at such an altitude that the road was at the same level as the tops of the pine; that was a sight to see. The mountaintops were packed with snow and ice. Then past Mosquito creek, Bow Peak to our left we came upon Crowfoot Glacier. In the evening light we caught glimpse of that frozen tongue of blue, pale blue, that was the glacier. But the real spectacle was still to come, Bow Glacier Basin and the Columbian Icefield, a broad street of ice, no a boulevard with its terminal moraine in the full glare of eyesight in the dying light.
In Jasper we stayed at Sawridge Inn. This was at the far end of Connaught Avenue. Jasper is really a one street town and Connaught Avenue is the street. To get to Sawridge, we drove out towards Maligne Lake. Our first night at Sawridge, we had dinner in. The meals were terrible. Jan had stuffed aubergine, exactly! Stuffed with a mess of yellow, green and indefinite pottage. I had ice cod, whatever that is, on a bed of new potatoes and some purple slush! Never again!
The woman sitting next to us struggled through a pizza, even that was not what you would expect. The cheese board, however, was a winner. The waiter, our waiter was a young white man, too tall for his movements, so that he seemed awkward and sadly uncoordinated. He dropped everything that he tried to carry. He was so laid back that he might have been Mr Desultory. And his assistant, a young Canadian woman, dark haired, slim, was equally slow and unhurried in her approach.
The next morning we went out for breakfast to The Other Paw, recommended by Oprah Winfrey, no less! I had a most unFrench croissant and jam. Jan had some bun or the other and large cups of cappuccino to wake us up. Then we went out to see the train engine on display, built in 1921 and decommissioned in 1972. Next, was the Jasper Totem Pole by the train station. Until recently it was a Black Raven totem pole but was replaced in 1992 by the Two Brothers totem pole.
Jasper used to be a meeting place, a crossroad between Native Canadian fur dealers and European traders. It is a most magnificent centre point. The mountains range round it. Then the river, Maligne canyon, cut 51 metres into the Rock, Medicine lake, and Maligne ranges and lake. The pine and spruce dense and denser still, up and up, towards the summits of the mountains. The mountains too, sandstone, limestone, perhaps granite too, were majestic and spectacular, lofty in the mid morning sun. The tips just in the clouds and the sprinkling of snow like talcum powder to adorn, to make more beautiful, what was already glorious.
Some of the mountain ranges along the Icefield Parkway have pine, dark green, growing in the v-shaped joints between two mountains, like unruly pubic hair. And there were armpits too, festooned with spruce and fir. Occasionally, a spring dribbles and flashes in the sunlight, like an elderly man with poor control of his waterworks.
It was impossible not to drink in the scenes, literally, it was all so picturesque that one’s mouth was wide open with “wow” and “wow” that at the end one was so drunk that one [I] swayed and staggered! That’s how rich and intoxicating this trip had been.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
What is terror? Is it that flash of white phosphorescent light that started in the innards and exploded soundlessly? First, a seizure quickened the pulse and the muscles of the heart, and then it dried the mouth, propelling every sinew, every nerve of the four limbs into a rush of running. It is definitely not like Lot’s wife at Gomorrah, there is no looking back. It is a straight flight, senseless, into the bayonet end. Let me recount, it is incendiary and blind. Lethal.
If you know how, you can see the early signals. In Monrovia, young hooligans loot a hospital for the blood-covered mattresses of death. In Freetown, doctors and nurses are killed for the mere fact of bringing concern to bear on a pernicious disease. In Lagos, more die in the first week from salt overload in the mistaken belief that saline drinks were panaceas. In Madrid, animal rights activists, ironically, clash with the police over the putting down of a dog when the owner is already mortally wounded. In Texas, there’s nowhere to quarantine a family already exposed to death.
And, this is only the firing of the starting gun.
Faced with the astronomical we can only comprehend the sluggish innumerate ten of the fingers on our hands. What are airport checks worth when the real and relevant distances are measured in six degrees of separation and not in nautical miles? This is like geologic to historic time, measured in millions of years compared to a few thousand years of history. Wholly incommensurate!
Tell me, what do you think about when in the centre of breathing, your breath catches on a snag? I lose all the thread of thought like geese flying formation style suddenly confronted by loss of air and unable to flap their wings or swoop through the warm current, plummeting, dropping like stone, like dead weight, their formation unraveling, so like my thoughts.
In this crisis, words miss the mark totally. As Camus said
even the sincerest grief [has] to make do with the set phrases of ordinary conversation.
current coin of language, the commonplaces of plain narrative, of anecdote and of their newspaper
must be enough since the anxiety & this sense of loss and of foreboding escapes the capacity of language. And hyperbole will not do. Yet, the extent of the disquiet, the panic and terror is extreme, very extreme.
In Saramago’s Blindness, another novel about an epidemic, this time not of the plague but of infectious blindness, metaphysical blindness, not the clinical blindness of cataracts or glaucoma, the only person with sight says
If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals.
Here, we have a talisman to live by. In this precarious period, fraught with anxiety, pregnant with panic, there is a serious risk of elemental emotions driving the humane out of the human, a very serious risk that like desperate animals, we shall sink our teeth into the neck of the other, salivating in the process. Yes, there is a real risk that we shall live entirely like animals.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
Sophocles’ Oedipus The King starts with lamentation. The priest cries
A blight is on the fruitful plants of the earth,
A blight is on the cattle in the fields,
a blight is on our women that no children
are born to them; a God that carries fire,
a deadly pestilence, is on our town,
strikes us and spares not, and the house of Cadmus
is emptied of its people while black Death
grows rich in groaning and in lamentation.
This proclamation signals the urge to seek the social origin of this pestilence, the social pollution that is at the root of an extraordinary catastrophe. Well, in the modern world, we no longer seek social causes for natural disasters. There is no quest for the moral within the domain of the natural and scientific. We seek instead an understanding of the phenomenon, a scientific explanation so that next time we may better defend ourselves against the terror of nature’s havoc.
No doubt, in West Africa today, Ebola is such havoc. Nature has run amok, striking at will, and indiscriminately, without regard to social position, gender or age, killing, not silently like poisonous gas but wildly like distemper armed with a many headed axe in the market place. Stricken bodies, bloodied and streaming with the juices that mediate life but usually unseen in the bowels or vessels, lie fallen on the ground. This is the face of the new pestilence that is both judge and avenger against the claims of innocence.
To understand this pestilence, the human too tragic effects, we must look to Camus’ novel The Plague. Published in 1947, when Camus was only 34 years of age. He had served with honour and courage in the French underground and survived World War II and the occupation of France by Nazi Germany. The novel was a detailed examination of the nature of pestilence, the startling and horrifying effects of it on a population, and the potential for human growth in the face of monumental loss. Camus explored the call to duty, the character of heroism, the place of love in human affairs, and how memory modifies understanding, transforming the past and transmuting the present too.
Ebola in Lagos and then Port Harcourt can now be described because it has already happened and is now memory. Ebola in Freetown, in Monrovia cannot yet be described for it is alive, multiplying, plural in its broadside and barrage on innocence and geniality. Ebola was brought into Lagos by Patrick Sawyer, a man who travelled from Monrovia by plane and arrived in Lagos on 20 July 2014. That is itself both a story of hubris and of heroism. It is reported that prior to travelling to Lagos he had been caring for his sister who died from Ebola. He became ill, vomiting on the plane and was quarantined on arrival in Lagos. Reports suggest that despite being ill he insisted on attending a meeting of finance ministers and had to be forcibly restrained from leaving the quarantine arrangement. Here was an individual whose own personal standing seemed to him to be everything in comparison to the health and well being of the many. A metaphor for how politics and power operates in West Africa. He knew he was ill. He knew he had had contact with another person afflicted with Ebola, yet he insisted on travelling and putting every one else on a plane at risk and 160 million others too.
Then there was the singular act of heroism by a doctor, Stella Adadevoh, an endocrinologist whose quick thinking and rapid action saved a nation. She physically held down Patrick Sawyer, thereby exposing herself to the full assault of a virus, virulent and in furor. What is duty? What is heroism? Camus’ answer was “The thing was to do your job as it should be done”. Or perhaps even more pertinent
So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils of the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.
There is the heroism of the singular act of demonstrable courage and then there is the commonplace, un-heroic heroism, the insignificant and obscure, modest goodness of doing what’s right, what’s necessary, what is dangerous without seeking adulation and definitely without counting the cost.
The Adadevoh family had already served the Nigerian nation well. Her great-grandfather Herbert Macaulay was a nationalist and pioneer of Nigerian nationalism and her father was a senior physician, a biochemist and university administrator.
Then there’s the travelling from Lagos to Port Harcourt to seek private care in a hotel, not a hospital! of an individual who had escaped surveillance but was a primary contact of Patrick Sawyer. And, there’s the avid greed of a doctor seeking payment over safety, agreeing to provide to care to the one man, not the care and concern of the many. That is another story of how the communal has fractured in the desire for personal gain.
And, is there also not another story asking to be delivered: a corpse brought across several countries from Monrovia for burial across the Niger in the East of Nigeria? What custom demands is also what death borrows for horse. Luckily this time, this corpse, turned out not have been a purveyor of further death. Phew!
As Camus says
“Everyone knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people by surprise […] A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away”.
Camus’s The Plague is a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. The pestilence was the loss of freedom, the exile from the natural commerce of human life, conversation, love, travel, and justice. Quarantine stood for the concentration camps and Cottard, one of the characters for collaborators, those who benefit from the sorrow of others. Dr Rieux, our narrator, in doing what’s morally right in the Kantian sense stood for duty, the quiet determination to do what’s right because it’s logical to act correctly.
The pestilence of Ebola has exposed the fragility, the frailty and dysfunction of the healthcare systems in West Africa. To imagine that the Nigerian Medical Association did not immediately call off its strike when it became clear that Ebola, a virus that threatened the life and existence of a nation, had arrived on its shores speaks loudly to the absence of ethical values in the fabric of society. But, that the government chose that precise moment to summarily dismiss all its trainee doctors is tribute to the idiocy and incompetence of government. The infrastructure and resources are pitiful. There is no sign whatever in the aftermath of Ebola in Nigeria that the government has understood its lucky escape from disaster. There are already hints of self-congratulation. A pity!
The triumph is rightly that of the dedication of a small group of people whose sense of responsibility and determination to act correctly saved a nation. The history of their methods is still to be written. The use of culture appropriate messages, the attention to detail, and the unflagging drive to rid a nation of 160 million of disease that is the most dangerous on the planet at present, all deserving of admiration.
Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea are still under the pall of this most pestilential of diseases.
Photos by Jan Oyebode