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I had belonged to the local bonsai club for a number of years and had become known as somewhat of an expert in collecting bonsai stock from the wild. Canada has several tree species that are particularly well suited for bonsai. The Japanese and Chinese have got nothing on us in that department.
For several years I had been receiving coercion to lead a collecting expedition for the club. I hummed and hawed until finally I agreed to give a presentation to the club of what it's really about and to ask who is interested in going.
The presentation went smoothly of course. I explained what species were available, various collecting techniques and tools required. Then I stressed just how arduous a task it really is and just how far away one must travel to get to suitable collecting grounds. One can't simply travel an hour or two north of Toronto and traipse through someone's cottage property or farm field ripping up their trees. One has to travel into northern Ontario and find Crown Land from which collecting is, at least marginally, acceptable.
About a dozen people indicated that they were interested in coming along.
After the presentation I had to corner five of them and gently tell them -- you're too old, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but let's face it, you are not going to be jumping out of an aluminium boat onto slippery granite rock and scrambling, with rope sometimes, around the Canadian Shield. You're walking with a cane right now. It was painful to have to do it, but reality is reality.
Two women and six men agreed to go. I was still a little dubious if three out of the eight, two of the men and one woman, could handle it.
I started a series of emails to the eight. The time was set, second week in May. A day to drive up and a day to drive back and at least two, preferably three, days of collecting -- and hey -- bring some fishing gear too. We would stay at a hunting/fishing lodge and rent boats. I had my own.
On the third weekend in May, which has a holiday Monday (Victoria Day) after it, or as it's better known in Ontario, May Two-Four Weekend (two-four being a reference to a case of twenty-four beer), three things happen in northern Ontario. Number one, pickerel season opens, pickerel being the Canadian term for walleye, a popular game fish. Two, with the fishing season open the fishing/hunting camps have their busiest week with mainly American tourists. And three, and probably most importantly, the black-fly come out.
There are reasons why most of Canada is uninhabited. One of them is black-fly. They are only around for a month or two. Unprotected, you'll only last a minute or two before they attack. Black-fly is a plural term. There is no such thing as one black-fly. Unlike a mosquito that stabs you with a little tube, these tiny little devils cut you and lick your blood out leaving an anticoagulant that itches and hurts. They are attracted by your warmth and your breath. Their choice target is right behind your ears.
There are mosquitoes too, starting in January, but by comparison to black-fly, mosquitoes are tame.
The boreal forest sits atop the Canadian Shield which is a vast pre-Cambrian slab of mainly granite that has been ground down by successive ice-ages leaving an undulating topography broken by the western interior lowlands and the Rockies to the west. With the forest sitting on top, it is basically a massive sponge. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, black-fly in moving water, such as the spring run-off.
As I expected, as the expedition date approached, several people backed out. Thankfully they included the three I was skeptical about.
Then there were four going, plus myself. Then, three. Then two.
Then only one. Aya Arslan.
Frankly, I was pissed off. I passed up going pike fishing with my buddies in the second week in May so I could do this bonsai trip. It's during those fishing trips that I buzz off and do my little bonsai collecting as a sidebar. My fishing buds tolerate my kooky little self-indulgence.
Aya was always the most enthusiastic amongst the bunch of them, but there was no way her husband or significant other was going to let her go to some remote cabin with just me for a couple of days. And although I didn't know anything about her personal life, any woman that good looking and that vivacious was not going to be single or somehow not committed.
I phoned her up to break the bad news.
"You mean we're not going up?"
"Well it's just you and me. How's it going to look?"
"I don't give a damn how it looks," she said.
"So you're still okay with going?" I asked.
"Of course," she paused, "are you?"
"Yeah," I answered with I'm sure a little shock in my voice.
It was settled. We'd take my Ford F-150 pick-up truck and my fourteen foot Lund aluminium boat with 9.9 Hp Envinrude outboard motor up on the Thursday and come back on the following Monday. She was going to pre-make and freeze dinner for three nights plus pack whatever else she fancied. I'd bring steaks, potatoes and veggies for the first night. I'd bring booze -- plenty. On our way we would stop and pick-up whatever else we felt was required for breakfast and lunch.
"Is there anything that you don't eat?" she asked.
"Aside from brazil nuts, I'm good with everything."
I was clear in my description of what she needed for clothing. In addition to the usual items, she needed to have: quality hiking boots, layers of clothing, rain-gear, boots for snow, hats, gloves, sunglasses, bathing suit, a one-piece nylon jumpsuit, preferably with Velcro sleeve fasteners and good quality thin, work gloves, a mesh anti-bug head net and a good pair of binoculars.
The reality was that during the second week in May I've seen the lakes still frozen and snow on the ground, only once albeit, or it can be eighty degrees Frankenheit. One has to be prepared. Up there, you are not ducking out to a corner store to pick up something that you've forgotten to pack.
Shining Tree, Ontario is seven and a half hours due north from Toronto. The town itself is a quanza hut general store/post office/liquor/beer store/gas station and a couple of small houses. That's it. There are hunting/fishing camps nearby. That is, miles down the gravel highway. There's no electricity down the highway. If you believe in sasquatch, that is sasquatch country.
Culturally, it's northern Ontario. Geographically, it's central Ontario. To get an idea of the vastness of this country...in the Province of Ontario, there is an electoral district that is the size of Poland. It takes pretty much the same time to drive from Toronto to the Manitoba border as it does to drive from Toronto to Florida.
Aya and I were off to Shining Tree. Bonsai hunting.
As arranged, I picked Aya up from her townhouse at 7:30 in the morning.
She was stunning in her tight blue jeans, short tan leather jacket and running shoes. As always Aya's thick black hair flowed like a jet black waterfall down her shoulders and back. Her brown eyes twinkled in the early morning light.
"Good morning Rob," she said with obvious glee in her voice as she packed her bags into the pick-up.
"Good morning Aya, can I help you with your bags?"
I didn't see anybody in her townhouse unit waving goodbye or saying have a great time as I picked up a large cooler from her front hall. She had one more large pack and her purse strapped over her arm as she locked the door to her townhouse.
"Let's go," she said smiling.
We stopped at the Tim Horton's drive-through and picked up two large coffees and some doughnuts and off we went through the morning rush hour traffic, heading the other way. Due north.
We talked about how I got into bonsai a number of years ago. I joined the club to learn more about it than just what I could glean from books. Then I just stayed. I'd always had a need to express myself artistically in some fashion. I love nature, I explained, trees and rocks.
"I guess I'm still playing with sticks and stones, just like when I was a kid," I said, "how about you?"
"I've always loved bonsai. Looking at them. I joined the club about a year ago to learn, just like you. And just like you I wanted to express myself. But I'm still learning." She paused to sip her coffee. "Living in a townhouse like I do, I'd love to have a big garden, I guess bonsai is one way to do it, to have a garden in miniature."
"I don't see bonsai as miniaturization per se. I mean on the face of it, it is. But I see it for exactly what it's supposed to be. A tree in a pot. End of story. To me it's more like a painting in a picture frame. Or a living sculpture, as some prefer to refer to it."
I reached for my coffee cup.
"You must have a lot, how long have you been doing it?"
"Oh gee," I paused trying to figure it out, "twelve, thirteen years now, maybe fourteen. And no I don't have a lot. I think I have eleven that I could honestly describe as a bonsai. But there are a few being raised in the ground that I'm working on. Most of the stuff that I had either died, or put it this way -- I killed them, or I've given away."
"By not watering them?"
"Sometimes, but it's usually because I've stressed them beyond what they could handle. I'm still learning."
We drove on for a minute.
"One of the funny things about bonsai is this," I said, "you pretty well need two lifetimes to really get it right, the first just to learn the fundamentals, the other to perfect the art."
"Well I only have two and I'm not happy with them. One I made at one of the club's workshops, the other I made myself. Both are from garden centre stock."
"I'm sure they'll be fine. In twenty years or so."
"That's why I wanted to go collecting. I've seen some of your trees. They're fantastic."
"Thank you Aya. It is, I admit, much easier to convey the image of a mature tree when the tree actually is a hundred years old."
"Exactly," she said smiling at me.
We drove on in silence for a while.
"Thank you for taking me on this trip," she said with sincerity in her gorgeous brown eyes.
"It's my pleasure Aya. I just hope everything goes smoothly."
She smiled at me as we drove on.
"Tell me about yourself Rob. Tell me about your job, about your family," she paused for a moment before she added, "if that's okay."
"Well I'm in the construction business. Commercial construction, office buildings, shopping malls that sort of stuff. It's okay, but I wouldn't recommend to anyone that they should get into it."
"Well for one, you're always working your ass off to finish the project and become unemployed." I paused for a moment before I continued with a sigh, "the other thing I guess, is that it can be brutal on the family."
"Are you married? Kids?" she asked.
"Divorced. Two kids, they're with Mom. They're ten and eight now. Two girls."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said.
I know she wanted to know what happened. I might as well tell her I thought. I didn't want to hide anything from her. That would just ruin the atmosphere of the trip.
"It's this stupid business I'm in. And I've seen it all around me. What happened was that we got married, Carol got pregnant, then pregnant again. Everything was fine. I was working hard, earning good money. The girls were fine."
Aya was watching me intently as I spoke.
"I finished a project in Toronto and we moved to Brantford so I could work on another. Then that finished and we moved again to just outside Toronto so that I could work in Toronto again. At the airport. When that finished, the girls were three and five, my next project was in Kingston at Queen's University. It had a twenty eight month schedule which meant I'd be lucky to be finished in thirty or thirty two. She refused to pack up and go. I didn't have a choice, I either took the project or I was out of a job. I had to feed the family, so off to Kingston I went."
Aya continued to watch me silently. I think she finished her coffee. I grabbed a doughnut and continued.
"The game plan was that I would come home for the weekends. Which I did. It's three hours each way plus traffic through Toronto. What would happen was that she would get so frustrated having to juggle the kids by herself all week, as soon as I got home she would just throw the kids at me. Of course I missed the kids but that's not the point. And in retrospect I now understand that when I came home for the weekends all I wanted was for everything to be the same as before. It wasn't. She was frustrated and I was frustrated."
I bit into my doughnut and chewed for a while. Aya said nothing.
"Eventually I would find excuses to work the weekend and I wouldn't come home. Eventually too, she learned how to cope without me. Inevitably we just drifted apart."
"I'm so sorry," Aya said.
"After thirty months she didn't even want me to come back. I did, I moved back for all of a month. We fought the whole time. Then I found myself an apartment."
"That's terrible," Aya whispered almost to herself.
"Two years ago we formally divorced. I still have child support payments which I make without fail. She met a guy -- a really nice guy, Aaron, whose wife died of breast cancer at age thirty two leaving him with a young daughter. They've since married and she just had a baby boy with him. Which is great."
"Is that supposed to be a happy ending?" she asked.
"I guess for her. I certainly hope for the best, especially for my two girls."
"Do you get to see them?" she asked.
"Ha!" I shook my head, "they moved out of town." I gazed at Aya who looked back at me intently. "They bought a house in Kingston."
"I don't believe it," she said rolling her head backwards.
"Believe it. That's the Robert Winstanley story."
We both just watched the road ahead of us for a while.
"Aya," I said, "look at that rock right there," pointing out the window.
"What about it?"
"It's limestone. It's limestone from here on south," I said. We were just outside Honey Harbour.
"Okay," she said slowly, probably wondering what I was on about.
"Now look at that rock," I said pointing, "it's granite." Maybe she thought I was crazy. "We've just climbed up onto the Canadian Shield."
"Hmm," was her only comment. She seemed quite interested in the view from the truck.
"Tell me about Aya" I said, or I guess asked.
"I work for my brother. I'm the office manager. He has a small company that distributes and sells industrial heat exchangers."
"Oh how sexy." I couldn't help myself.
"I know," she replied, "but at least I have a steady income."
"I know, I know. I'm sorry."
"And in spite of the up and down economy," she added, "blood is thicker than water."
"You're absolutely right," I said.
We drove in silence for a while longer. I figured something was grinding her about her personal life. I didn't want to ask again. She certainly wasn't bubbling up saying I've three wonderful kids and a perfect husband.
Eventually she piped up herself, "I was in a relationship that ended about a year ago."
"We were together for eight years. In the end, I left her."
Her? Did I just hear her say her? I guess my jaw was a little slacked as I gazed at Aya in disbelief.
"Any kids?" I asked realizing immediately that it was a profoundly stupid question.
"No. Helene wanted some though. See wanted to be inseminated by my brother, or for me to be inseminated by her brother. Preferably both."
"That's a little weird." I said. I probably shouldn't have.
We drove in silence again, staring at the road.
"Eight years," she said. "The last two weren't particularly nice."
"Do you still feel for her?" maybe I was prying a little too deep with that question.
"No. Maybe. I don't know. I can't even answer her phone calls anymore."
We watched the road for a while.
"She wanted to get married and have kids."
"Is that so bad?" I asked.
"I couldn't. But she kept pushing and pushing until it became unbearable."
"But after eight years why not?"
"Because my family couldn't accept it."
"That you're lesbian? In this day and age? In Canada? C'mon."
"I would bring shame to the family. My family is still very traditional. I would have lost my job."
"So what. There are other jobs."
"Yes, but I only have my one family. I would have hurt them."
"So you never outed yourself."
"Did you live with her?"
"Yes. For eight years. And everything was fine at first when we were roommates. As long as we maintained two bedrooms, the plausibility of denial was there. My family suspected that there was something going on, but it was a don't ask, don't tell situation. Plus, they live in Montreal. They didn't normally come snooping around."
"I'm missing something here."
"Helene kept on pushing to have me come out. The final straw was when she got a tattoo of the gay pride rainbow like an epaulet below her left shoulder."
"So it was either her or your family?"
"Exactly. But it didn't need to be. She made it that way."
We drove on silently for a while.
"I don't consider myself lesbian."
I didn't say a word. I didn't dare. We just drove on.
"What's your background?" I asked.
"Druze. Christian. I was born in Beirut. My family emigrated to Canada when I was four. We moved to Toronto, then they moved to Montreal when I was twenty. They now share a house with my uncle. My father's brother. It's a traditional family."
After a few more miles Aya turned to me and said, "What a pathetic pair we are aren't we?"
"Bullshit!" I said.
She stared at me in disbelief.
"I'm driving due north into God's country. I have a beautiful woman sitting next to me and the weather ahead looks fantastic. And...and...we don't have to do anything but have fun for the next five days."
Aya leaned across the front seat and grabbed hold of my right bicep with both hands. She pressed her face against my shoulder and smiled up at me. Her bright white teeth peeked through her luscious lips. Her brown eyes glistened in the light.
"You're right Rob. I'm sorry." She squeezed my arm a little. "And Rob...you're a pretty good looking guy." she said with a grin.
Yes. Game on.
As we drove on the mixed hardwoods started to give way to clumps of black spruce. The Carolinian forest was dwindling away as the Boreal forest lay ahead.
What kind of trees are those?" she asked.
"Black spruce. Picea mariana."
"Do they make good bonsai?"
"I've tried but I can't make them look anything but spindly. I love their shape though."
"They look so forlorn."
"Clearly you're a natural artist Aya. To describe a tree as forlorn is something that comes from the heart, not from the intellect. Forlorn is a great subject matter to put onto your bonsai canvas. Your heart already sees what it looks like."
She had a curious look on her face but said nothing.
"Maybe we should get you some black spruce. Just because I've not had much luck with them doesn't mean you won't be able to."
She was grinning as she looked out the window.
We crossed the French River. "Beautiful," she said.
"The French River was part of the voyageurs' route to bypass the lower Great Lakes," I informed her hoping that I wasn't sounding too high brow or being too patronizing, "from Montreal they'd shoot up the Ottawa River, then take the Mattawa into Lake Nippissing, then the French River into Georgian Bay."
"I'm sure it wasn't."
I wondered just how much exposure to Ontario Aya had. "Have you been to the French River?" I asked her.