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Excerpt

Mooskek-Owak


by John Flood



Mooskek Reader #1
Black Moss journal
Series 2, Number 4


Spring 1978



Where did John Flood's fascination with the north originate?

Well ...
it began with a swamp...

Mooskek Reader #1

There is a friend in Hearst who affectionately refers to the flatlands of the area as The Great Swamp. Without knowing it, he has described this part of northern Ontario in a way that is common among the Cree of James Bay. Their term is one that Kanina, in Fred Bodsworths's The Strange One, uses to describe her origins to a white intruder: Mooskek-owak. The Ones of the Muskeg. Mooskek is a word that has a number of meanings, as illustrated by Walter Avis in A Concise Dictionary of Canadianisms, but which for northern Ontario means "an organic bog which is a brown to black mixture of water and living and dead vegetation often covered with a carpet of sphagnum or other mosses and often of considerable depth."

To define the northern space--Mooskek is as good a definition as any--we've got to resolve the traditional arguments that demonstrate where north begins: at Barrie or French River, at Highway 17 or the height of land (called summit, all 1400 feet of it, by the railways). Where I live just a few miles north of the 49th parallel, it is hard to say to Torontonians that I'm not a southerner and to Alertians that I'm a northerner. The problem is that our conception of space is of distance measured in miles. Anyone who travels 500 miles north from Toronto is bound to be in the North; another 500 miles will put you at Winisk on the shore of the Hudson Bay, still comfortably below the 60 degrees North latitude. When you arrive at North Bay you are told that you are passing thought the gateway to the North; at Cochrane the gateway to the Bay; at Moosonee the gateway to the Arctic. Gateway, A Moving Target, maybe even better than Mooskek!

Connotation of movement is appropriate in the definition for one who cannot risk standing still in the north--neither when pursued by blackflies and mosquitoes nor when hampered by freezing temperatures. You've got to keep paddling, keep lifting one snowshoe in front of the other. So our perception of landscape is space that is always on the move; white pines and black spruce, green lakes and sphagnum moss are just reference points, sometimes rest points, but always departure points. Otherwise the bush can be a trap--as much as the mind as of the body. And so we pamper ourselves with tourist promos of the pretty, perhaps even the grand or the sublime, lies, but always if we get a few feet off the trail, the unknown, the wild, the truth is there to dissolve us. And that is north, the mind whose consciousness of itself is heightened by the real unknown, the space we cannot embrace but which absorbs us. It is the home of our worst fears.

It is wise to fear the north, and to understand that fear. For some, understanding may be in the form of respect or awe, for others, of anger and hatred. In this volume ... written by and about those who have feared, it is the depths of the mooskek.


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