in the damp morning air: rain pitter-patters on whispering leaves. inherited onomatopoeic vocabulary; true but tried tropes carrying with them vague echoes of that singular safety known to the time when board books taught us to affix words to sounds, predictably, repeatably. a wind sighs, branches rustle. the sounds of a forest reclaimed, tenuous roots returned, to a soil that was once familiar. silence plays around these sounds, making them possible, like the sky peeking through the whispers above: a reminder: of those other, original imitative vocabularies that described the polyphony of this forest, first. Tenacious words, which, in spite of a history deaf to their articulations, spiral softly, smoke-wreathed into this morning, issuing prayers of health, to follow the thousands of shoes preparing to create a synthetic pitter-patter of their own, rubber soles upon the asphalt, alongside periodic Doppler screams torn from the well-trafficked highway that awaits in the not-so-distance. reverberations of the reclaimed give way to a new ecology, as green cedes to all-encompassing grey punctuated by steady intervals of pop, pop, poppops—I look for fireworks but see neither colour nor celebration—for this is the percussion of propane canons composed to scare birds, whose songs have long been forgotten, away from toxic lakes, silent, slick, seeping into a wasted land—pop poppop—their rhythms traveling unimpeded, without echo, for lack of anything left to push back upon them. but what’s this? the eerie screech of an eagle drifting somewhere above this morose Morse code turns my head skyward, when I hear it again, and again, and again, with a periodicity that defies the improvisatory impulse of the living, and I realize that even this cry has been engineered, in canon with the canons, to further frighten and empty this place. gurgling, chugging, a small boat passes—“a raker,” somebody informs me: new word, new sound—charged with raking up the carcasses of all those defiant birds who ignore the sonic barricade. we stop. and stand in silence, as elder voices make offerings to their land that lies somewhere under this awesome empire of tubular towers that exhale their foul breath, like so many mouths on a cold winter’s morning. the gusts of a familiar northern wind bring with them a cry, far from electronic: the sobs of an old woman, the sound of healing, beginning somewhere, within the centre of the wound. for indeed, around me, I hear the percussion of real drums, beating vital rhythms that welcome life, rather than frighten it away. I hear different languages animating impassioned dialogues about what we are seeing, what is to be done. I hear the sounds of yet another ecology: of alliance and of defiance: the sounds of a growing multitude determined to salvage what meaning, what familiarity has not yet been extracted from this tarry void, so that the inheritance of future ears will not be board books that instruct: “E” is for the electronic eagle that emits, “R” is for the raker that rumbles.

Image: The Tar Sands Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta, July 2013. Image by: Ben Powless, courtesy of Healing Walks/Keepers of the Athabasca.