Sunday, September 14, 2008

Day 43: The Gordian fence

This is a tough entry to write, because it details the first time I sinned during this trip.

"Sin" has some really powerful connotations, so I am reserving it for powerful meanings. There were surely many times before this that I did the wrong thing in error or ignorance, while trying to do right, but here there was little reason for me to believe I was doing right.

Now I have been an explorer for many years, in the city and in the country, and have a well-developed explorer's ethic. Don't break anything, don't steal anythin, leave only footprints, take only photographs, leave no trace. In the wilderness that about sums it up, but in the city, one tends to start taking signs like "Keep out" or "Danger" more as invitations, than warnings. Should I ever own a house I should probably get a mat for the front door with "KEEP OUT" printed in red and white. That way I will both feel welcome and be able to scrape my boots on it every time I enter.

I would never go into any private, personal property, but if a hospital was awaiting demolition, some house abandoned for months, or some new building going up, why not take a peek? But the ethic is still clear. I never took anything or broke anything, and fences and locked doors were not problems to be solved by force, but challenges to be overcome by wit and logic. One night I was down in the steam tunnels below the University of Illinois campus, and was aghast when two people I had brought with actually just took sodas from a lounge. Later, in a hospital, some friends found some old x-rays but I convinced them to leave them for the next explorers to see.

I am relating this not so you will be impressed with me, but just so you can see that this is a very well-defined, if peculiar, ethic.

Coming down the river so far there had been essentially no fences blocking my path, and indeed I believed it was illegal to block a public waterway like this. The closest to a fence were two strands of barbed wire, on either side of a low bridge early on the Qu'Appelle, that were easily ducked or pushed out of the way.

I was all set to hurry through the Piapot Indian Reserve in the morning. Being unclear on the rules pertain to the river through the reserves, I had adopted certain additional principles: I won't set foot on the land, and I will try to get through as quickly as I can. It is probably dangerous to adopt new rules for special circumstances, because they get blown out of proportion, masking the old rules you live by.

Soon after entering the reserve territory, I saw a fence across the water. Two barbed wires, from side to side, supported by posts; but the fence was erected when the river was lower, and the post or two that were here had been uprooted, collecting debris along the left side. Since the left seemed blocked, and the wires were relatively low on the right, I hoped to accelerate the canoe, that if I went fast enough, my boat would push these wires down under it, and scrape just over the top.

I was going pretty fast when I hit the fence, but the wires were too high to go down under it. Instead, they became tangled up in my front canoe cover, in the ropes and hooks I used to secure it. Besides that, the current was strong and pinned me to the fence. I wanted to get through the reserve quick, but there I was, caught like a fish in a net.

I knew the fences were meant for cattle, not people, and that the river certainly seemed high enough to stop the cattle from crossing here. I felt a solution to my problem at my right breast, reached into the pocket of my lifejacket there and pulled out my Leatherman. With two quick snips the top wire was free, but the canoe still wouldn't go over the bottom one, so two more snips and the current pushed my canoe through the broken fence, free.

Free in physics, but not in spirit. I immediately realized that cutting the fence had violated all my explorer's ethics, and on the Indian Reserve, to boot. I had broken the obstacle, cheated at the puzzle. I had let a trace, and in rather a violent way, too, by actually severing a piece of someone else's property.

There was another fence a little ways on. Two sets of three strands each, which I was able, with difficulty, to squeeze my canoe through. I wondered if I had calmed down and looked more carefully at my problem earlier, I might have found a better solution.

It is amazing what rationalizations the mind can dream up! I felt horrible about this travesty all day, but by nightfall, I had many excuses. I was angry because I believed there should be no fences across the water, and there had been none before. The river was high enough anyway, would I even have cared if it hadn't been on the reserve? And surely fences have problems all the time; this one was already in trouble with those fallen posts and accumulated debris. Anyway, if I neer tell anyone...

I would later be able to prove to myself that these excuses did not assuage my guilt. apparently these fences were not as singular as I believed them to be; in the next section of the river there would be many more fences, some of them electrified, and not on the reserves. Later I was asked how I got around fences, and I said by going over or under them, neglecting to mention I wasn't above cutting them.

It is surprising how quickly guilt can turn to anger, even hatred. I did not forgive the native teen I saw walking down the street for looking haughtily at me, as many teens do. When I saw two native men and children fishing off of a dam right in front of the "no fishing" sign, I boiled inside. If they are above our laws, why should what I did matter? And there were plenty of grievances, young and old, available locally to fuel my anger. A report that some reserve further on was using its location to extort millions of dollars from the government. A story that some natives up north had massacred a herd of animals, taking only their hinds in a refigerator truck, leaving the rest to rot. Hardly a traditional style of hunting, and this from a people mythologized by our culture for living in harmony with nature, using every part of the buffalo.

So fast, so fast, so fast. One day, two days, three. There is nothing more to say, for peace I would need to somehow make contact with the Piapot, set things right with that anonymous rancher I may have harmed, and hoped my act was of as little harm as I imagined. But I resolved this too late, and there would be no Internet until Brandon, and likely no peace until later, for no sin is too small to devour one who has not offered apology.

Day 43 ended: 50*36.218N, 102*40.335W


John said...

I didn't know that soda theft was happening on our dorm floor; I thought they had accumulated them through using their meal plans on the late night, and then using all the free entries on drinks, like a lot of people did. Bleh.

Kevin Saff said...

This was actually an isolated incident, not continuous theft.

John said...

So it's not differentiable at every point! The crime is in fact a discontinuity.

Still, though, I'm surprised too.