There is a terrifyingly beautiful feeling waiting for me in the Rockies. Quite what it is I have never been able to make stand still. It sometimes feels like merciful obliteration.

I mean, the Rocky Mountains take no notice of those passing through, need nothing from those passing through. They are a quiet, powerful other. *

By contrast, the urban landscape makes demands of me. It orders me to read this sign, read that billboard, read this digital screen. Read, read, read. And that reading makes noise in my head. And being the reader, I am tricked into believing the messages need me.

In the mountains, there is no such fraud in the quiet trees.



We got to Banff in the Friday evening gloom that had turned to snowy rain by the time we hit Banff Avenue and headed up the side of the mountain along St. Julien Road to the Banff Centre. We checked in and the friendly, bun-of-hair woman behind the reception desk told us with a smile-apology-smile that there was some construction going on on the exterior wall outside our suite and that we may notice some noise during the day tomorrow—and welcome.


I remembered her warning the next morning when the whine of the drill forced its way into my thoughts. Shelagh was in town and I was in the suite in front of my laptop working on my research project, and it sounded like the drill was coming through the wall next to me. My first thought was, come on, really? Finally in the mountains for a little quiet time to think and I get dentistry through the skull??!

Scaffolding concert stage
But the Banff Centre does its work in mysterious ways. Because I noticed that every time the sounds of the drill and hammer had subsided, up came the whistle of the workman through the window. It was beautiful. The dude knew his pitch, But what, what was the song? What was it? And then I grabbed it before it flew away: Billy Joel's New York State of Mind. And some of the words came to mind through another wall as he whistled.

I've seen all the movie stars
In their fancy cars and their limousines
Been high in the Rockies under the evergreens
But I know what I'm needing
And I don't want to waste more time...

Listen carefully off the top and then in and around :49, 2:24, 3:38 and 5:28, and you'll experience that wonderful private, unintended scaffolding concert featuring the unknown workman on drill and whistle.

It reminded me of that brilliant Oscar Peterson statue in Ottawa where his music is playing behind, around the sculpture. The city noises of bus exhaust and sirens and traffic rise up and drown out the music, but it comes back when that din subsides. And you realize the task might simply be to find the music behind the other stuff.

The other day we were talking about where we feel the most Albertan. For Mike, it's Cuba and the perspective on home he got abroad. For Alex, it's Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump and its neck-turning, stunning vista of prairie and mountain. For Shelagh, it's looking at a canola field (while driving by at 120 kmh). For me, it's the Banff Centre. I have never attended a class there, but I have tagged along when Shelagh went there for leadership conferences. I bring my books and my memories and thoughts. I like the installations at the Phillips Gallery and I like to look at and walk through the Kinnear Centre. I love to consider that buildings where people drill through the crust of routine and into new thoughts to power innovation and creativity are buildings worth building. To think and dance and sing and play and paint and sculpt and tell stories in. This isn't a provincial place.

From the main dining room, even in the black of night, the view is worth recording and considering:

Looking out
At the Banff Centre, you meet the most interesting creatures:

Looking good, elk
You try to read the writing on the wall:

Looking good, dear
And you get to listen to some of the most interesting cats, Saturday night's example being Oliver Stone. The Hollywood director was there, interviewed by The Globe and Mail correspondent Ian Brown, and he gave, to a friendly audience, an apology for his metamorphosis from son of an Eisenhower Republican to left-wing maker of Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, W., among his many directing and screenwriting sensations. At times he rambled, but you got the sense there's just too much in the old head.

Stone said the entitlement of elites terrifies him. Echoing Springsteen, he said he found the proof of the flimsiness of the American rulers' rhetoric in the contradiction between their willingness to send other parents' sons to war, but not their own. He located satire in the process of some kind of reversal. Tom Cruise became a man during the filming of Born On The Fourth Of July, a film that Stone said was not a good "date movie." He said he was initially propelled by a feeling that what the U.S. was doing in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s was Vietnam redux: "baby-faced soldiers in tropical forests." And that his political art continues to be informed by the feeling that people just don't hear about things. JFK was killed in a "classic black ops operation," he said. It was an intriguing evening. A good show.

Shelagh and I walked back to our room. The moon looked like a knife against the veil.

As much as my leaking memory can hold the explanation, the Rockies were formed by tectonic plate shifts millions of years ago. The pastoral pools and meadows and vistas of beauty we contemplate today are the result of collisions, comings-together, juxtapositions of rock.

That's how stuff worth looking at and thinking about gets created.


* This morning in the Banff Centre blog, the playwright Daniel MacIvor remembers the writing of Arigato, Tokyo, and this conversation with that other that starts like this:
I can't help but think in some way the calm that the play evokes has something to do with the indelible memory I have of sitting in my cabin in the woods in the Leighton Colony, gazing out at the deer on the mountain crest, snout to the ground, filling his unfillable belly, indifferent to my gaze, unmoved by my struggle...
And ends with a provoking idea that should send me back to my Hobbes:
...helping me to understand how our nature is peace even in the pursuit of survival. 


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