The title (‘Great Silence’) is drawn from possibly my favorite documentary ever, Into the Great Solitude. This video was shot by a solo canoeist- mostly on handheld camera- as he descended one of the wildest and most unforgiving free-running rivers in North America- the Back River.
I’ve yearned for a Back River trip for years… but the song ‘Great Silence’ is drawn most closely from a trip down the Seal River in Manitoba that I took with some friends in the early 90s. I'm playing guitar and bouzouki. My friends Paul Smith and Lisa O'Leary are on the violin and bodhran drum, respectively. The video I’ve spliced together for ‘Great Silence’ draws from this trip- photos and imagery.
The ‘Seal River’ is an eponymously named- harbor seals prowl the waterway from its confluence with Hudson Bay to Shethanai Lake, about 200 miles inland. On our trip, we encountered our first seal twisting through a rapid while we were still about 12 days out from the salt water.
I’d seen The Secret of Roan Inish shortly before we hopped in a Vanagon and backfired our way north. Seals have the most limpid, expressive eyes in the mammalian ranks, and it’s easy to understand the roots of the mythology. There were a couple of encounters that were particularly evocative.
- Slipping into the river at dusk while a seal patrolled near our campsite*, and treading water while the beast slipped beneath the waves. The seal re-emerged repeatedly, only feet away, chuffing softly.
*I wouldn’t do this now- seals are notorious for sporting a bit of a toe fetish. Thanks to the great Kawika Chetron for the photo.
- Finishing off a glorious, two-mile long stretch of class II-III whitewater- all haystacks, sluices, and endless fields of half-submerged boulders to dodge. The most massive harbor seal I’ve ever seen, pale as a ghost, guarded the passage. Unlike most of his wary tribe, the seal held his place as we drifted past. Dark, enigmatic eye never broke contact.
On it’s surface, it’s a narrative about a canoeist’s encounter with a Selkie. At the time that I wrote this song, however, I was dealing with the transition from working as a canoe guide in Northern Minnesota to gearing up for graduate school. It was an uneasy transition- I was missing the lake country desperately.
In the end, I think that the song- more than anything- is about being seduced by ‘otherness’.
(By the way, how cool is it that Andy Serkis- AKA Gollum- has generated an audio adaptation of Screwtape? I don’t even care that it’s sponsored by Focus on the Family... the more they produce theater, the less they’ll dabble in politics).
I'd even hazard a guess that Jesus' tendencies to slip away into the desert stem from this. (Actually, Bill Mason hazarded that guess in his film WaterWalker a long time ago. Another extended ode to canoeing- gotta love the symmetry). Wild places and wild creatures will inevitably shatter our hoarded assumptions about reality, about our own souls.
Perhaps this is a prime reason for our uneasy relationship and often antagonistic relationship with nature.
But then- human beings are fey. There’s no one who’s entered into a marriage or friendship who hasn’t been confounded by a sense of Terra incognito. There’s a point where you have to give up your pretensions of godhood.
To close out- there’s a rich body of published music that explores the same terrain as ‘Great Silence’ (albeit a heck of a lot better). An initial example is a song by the incomparable Mike Scott (from The Waterboys) as interpreted by Luka Bloom.