Another reflection on Ireland sort of … and the loss of a mentor.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver
Very recently, someone I admired since I was a young kid died suddenly. He was healthy, super fit and young at heart. A young 53, I believe.
His name was Dr.Brent Cuthbertson, but I grew up knowing him by his nickname Chase. There’s this special place in Lake of the Woods, Ontario, called Camp Stephens; a YM/YWCA camp that I attended from ages 8 to 17 as a camper and worked at from 18 to 24. I met Chase there.
When I was a teenager going on 2-week canoe trips, Chase was one of the wilderness directors and a few years later, he and my big brother co-led a 6-week canoe trip. I have fleeting memories of Chase but the people ahead of us in the Trail program seemed like gods and goddesses that we automatically admired.
I remember his cheesy grin, bright eyes, awesome mullet, kindness and intelligence. On my first 2-week trip when I was an awkward 14 years old, Chase was driving us in the old camp bus Stoughton (named for the town in Saskatchewan that it was purchased in) to the drop-off point where our canoe trip would begin. The gravel dust was billowing up and filling the bus that hot summer day and started to aggravate my asthma so I moved up to sit right behind him where the air was clear. I can’t tell you anything we talked about. All I remember was that he made me feel special because he actually took the entire time to chat with me about stuff. He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.
I remember my brother saying that Chase had audio taped many evenings around camp during their 6-week trip in, I think it was 1990. He was doing some sort of ethnographic study about group dynamics on wilderness trips. I’d so LOVE to have heard those recordings. I know how wild and goofy groups get living in such intense situations in the woods like that. I can only imagine what 7 teenage boys and their fearless trippers would have gotten up to!
After I learned that Chase died, I went online to find out what he’d been up to for all of these years. He was a professor at Lakehead University, still teaching about group dynamics in wilderness settings but he was also taking part in “autoethnographical exploration … of the land through a mapless canoe trip.”
And that got me thinking!
The same week that Chase died, we were discussing way-finding and how visitors to the park where I work orient themselves and explore the region, or why they don’t explore it. Often times city folks are fearful in the woods so they don’t go beyond the town site.
I got to thinking about my time in Ireland. I had a similar experience to many park visitor but in the opposite situation. I was content and felt safe while hiking but when I got into Dublin I was wandering around hopelessly lost, as if my inner compass was spinning uncontrollably. I could not get straightened around for the life of me and it was incredibly disconcerting. I relied almost entirely on my friend to get us from point A to B each day. And I was so befuddled by the fact that I could not figure out where I was because every day we went to many of the same areas in the city.
So then I was talking to a good canoeing buddy of mine who’s older brother was a contemporary of Chase’s. She was telling me how Chase taught her brother to navigate among the islands of NW Ontario and how to sight portage trailheads from the water in ways that she’d never thought of before. This amazed me because she’s been canoeing all her life and the way-finding she talked about is something that I do automatically. I assumed she had been doing it too.
Maps are great tools and I would choose a map and compass over a GPS device any day, but I have also been royally screwed by maps in my years of wilderness travel. Nature changes. Maps are static snapshots. I never rely on them 100%. More and more I have learned to read the land for markers and way-finding.
I can point out a tree on the far side of the park (that to most people looks just like all of the thousands of trees around it) at a particular bend in a trail that is tens of kilometres long and tell you a story to go with it. But I walked past the same clothing store in Dublin 10 times and felt like I was seeing it for the first time every time save for the fact that my friend Allan would say we’d been by it before.
I grew up in the suburbs of cities but I’ve lived the better part of the last 18 years rurally or remotely in the north. I always assumed that I would be able to re-adapt to city life without much fuss. Now I’m not so sure.
I know how to read a map. I armed myself every day in Dublin with a paper map and downloaded Google maps on a tablet that I would study before leaving the hotel. I would identify landmarks in real time as I walked and yet I got turned around every day and had to ask for help. Before my friend showed up to explore with me, I spent more than two hours lost one night in Temple Bar going in, I think, circles but never returning to the same place twice. CRAZY!!!
This idea of mapless exploration also made me think of a talk I heard given at a feast in the park by a Metis elder named Maria Campbell, author of The Road Allowance People, among other things. She spoke about her peoples’ connection to the land and how disoriented they were after being forced to move and live outside what became the park. She spoke of cultural landmarks such as burial sites that the people knew of in the woods. The land wasn’t just a bunch of trees and rocks but routes of travel created through experience that became knowledge passed down through generations orally. If I understood her correctly, their identity was intimately linked to their surroundings and when that was lost, they were lost.
I get that at a personal level. I get it because it’s how I move around the land and how I, more and more as I live in these remote places, connect to and journey through the landscape. I know one tree from another, one bend in the trail from another and a rock in its place because of my experiences in those places that have shaped my knowing and understanding. I’ll always take a map with me when I venture out and about but I might not always have it at the ready. I want to ensure that I am paying closer attention to my surroundings than I am to a piece of paper.
Seasons, water levels, weather conditions, time of day and years of wear all alter the natural world. If I don’t pay attention to it as I move through, there will come a day when no map will aid me. I need to have that sense of self in space and time, whereas in Dublin I seemed to need to have rote memory of the order in which brand store names appeared along streets and count paces to the next left or right turn in order to find my way.
Chase. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. And I’m sad that it took his dying for me to find out about the interesting work he was doing. It would be so great to be able to pick his brain and have a good discussion about some of this stuff. Connie Russell, a friend and colleague of his who gave the eulogy spoke about his interest in mapless travel. I leave her words here for you to enjoy and to consider about how you move through the world about you and how you might move through the world beyond this one.
I’ll chat with you all about it in the next realm, Chase. I can’t wait to hear about what you’ve learned!
BRENT CUTHBERTSON’S EULOGY – October 30, 2014
by Connie Russell
It is wonderful to see so many of you here today to celebrate the life of Dr. Brent Cuthbertson. I am not remotely surprised to see such a large crowd, because I know that Brent touched and inspired many in his too short life. Thank you all for coming.
If anyone had suggested two weeks ago that I would be here today giving Brent’s eulogy, I would have scoffed. How absurd! Brent was so healthy, so full of life, such a vital presence that it was impossible to imagine a world without him. Yet here we are.
As you all know, Brent passed away peacefully on Tuesday, October 28 in the presence of loved ones. In the last week of his life, he took those of us who were members of what we came to call “Team Brent” on an epic journey. I was reflecting yesterday on how this journey was led in true Brent fashion. Brent was very intrigued by “map-less travel” – indeed, he loved heading into the wild without a map. He felt that there was much to learn about oneself as well as one’s relationship to other people, and to nature, through such travel. And last week, he took us on another map-less journey. For much of the time, we did not know where we were heading. Later, after we did have a sense of our destination, we were not really sure how we were going to get there and Brent, being a master teacher, ensured there were a few twists and turns still in store for us. And on this journey, we found ourselves needing to pay attention to group dynamics, to be compassionate with one another and with ourselves, and to lean on each other. As I spoke with the other folks on the journey, it became abundantly clear to me that each of us had learned something important this last week thanks to Brent. I, for one, had to learn, yet again, to let go of my need to plan and to manage; this journey remained unpredictable and uncontrollable to the very end, and I just had to go with Brent’s flow. This would no doubt make Brent chuckle.
But, now, let us focus on Brent’s life rather than his death. Brent was born on June 2, 1961 in Northern Rhodesia, in what is now Zambia. His family moved to Canada when he was a young boy and he lived in Canada for most of his childhood and adolescence. I gather from the stories that his parents Bruce and Ann told me that he was a spirited yet gentle child, a kind soul with just a wee bit of mischief in him. His brother Alan told me what a generous boy Brent was and his sister Debbie described him as her protector.
Brent’s love of the outdoors was evident from early on. A pivotal time for him was clearly his Camp Stephens days where he went first as a camper and later joined the staff. I was struck by how many of the postings on Facebook and on the online condolences site mentioned experiences with “Chase” (which was his nickname at that time). That he formed, and maintained, strong bonds with people at Camp Stephens is not a surprise given who Brent was. Indeed, he was the sort of person who, once you had him in your life, you wanted to keep him in your life.
Brent went on to earn a BEd in 1989 from the University of Winnipeg, an MA in Outdoor Education in 1992 from the University of Alberta, and a PhD in Outdoor Education in 1999, also from the University of Alberta. Brent joined the School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism at Lakehead University in 1996 and was the Director of the School between 2007 and 2011. He was also an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Education.
Brent was the author of two textbooks and numerous articles, and he also wrote very good short stories and poetry on the side. He was internationally recognized for his expertise in outdoor leadership. His overarching concerns were our relationship to the natural world and our relationships with each other. As such, he was deeply committed to the flourishing of both natural and human communities and he saw these as intimately intertwined. Drawing inspiration from environmental philosophy, he urged outdoor leaders, and all of us, to consider the ethical and material implications of the choices we make – in how we travel, how we educate, what we eat, how we live.
Brent himself lived simply and was particularly critical of our society’s rampant consumerism. One could see that in the clothes he wore! He seemed to have what one might say was a rather limited rotation of clothing – I’ve seen quite a few comments about that blue Lake Superior sweater of his, for example. I also saw mention of his penchant for wearing socks in his Birkenstock sandals, which reminds me of the time he and I went to see one of the Shrek movies (Brent and I went to many movies together over the years and we both particularly enjoyed action flicks and cartoons). Anyway, in this movie, the wizard Merlin appears and is portrayed as a stereotypical male professor who wears socks in his sandals. Brent and I took one look at each other and started howling in laughter because, yes indeed, that was precisely what he had on his feet at that moment.
Brent lived in a very deliberate way, trying as much as he could to live his life in congruence with his values. He was humble about this attempt, knowing full well that we are all creatures rife with contradictions and that we often stumble, but that it is important that we continue trying to do the best that we can. This was a key concept he wanted to share with his students and I can see from the statements by his former students that this message was heard.
Students also speak of Brent as a brilliant instructor. He was clearly revered by his students. Indeed, many former students have shared how he impacted them, both professionally and personally. Many are now educators themselves in one setting or another and have described how Brent has been a role model for them. Others have talked about how he inspired them to think deeply and critically about a whole range of topics, to be compassionate, and to live deliberately. He has impacted hundreds of people over the years through his teaching and they, in turn, have impacted many others. What an amazing legacy!
In the tributes I have seen to Brent over this past week, a number of words pop up frequently: smart, kind, gentle, compassionate, thoughtful, ethical, genuine, playful, funny, inspiring. What a wonderful list. There also has been much mention of his warm smile, his wicked sense of humour, and his infectious laugh. All of these remembrances ring true for me. As well, for me, Brent was also a loyal and trusted friend. We had a brief stint as roommates when he kindly invited me to live with him in his home when I needed a place to stay. I recall those days very fondly. Cooking together, laughing together, drinking tea by the fireplace, with dogs Tinder and Pagan and cat Fisher listening to our philosophical chats about important stuff like our place in the natural world, religion, politics, and the relative merits of heavy metal and folk music.
Another word I would use to describe Brent now is happy. Seven years ago, Brent met Kim, the person he called his “greatest love.” Theirs truly was a fairytale romance and it warmed his friends’ hearts to see him so very, very happy. While Brent and Kim were married just a few short months ago, on July 7, 2014, they have packed a lifetime worth of good memories into their seven years together. Kim, thank you so much for making Brent so happy.
I want to share a poem that one of Kim’s dear friends sent her a couple of days ago. It sums up the gift Brent gave to Kim and to so many of us:
“The best kind of people are the ones who come into your life
and make you see the sun where you once saw clouds.
The people who believe you in so much, you start to believe in you too.
The people who love you for simply being you.
The once in a lifetime kind of people.”
Brent most certainly was one of those “once in a lifetime kind of people” for Kim and for many of us.
I want to close now with an excerpt from a favourite poem of Brent’s, Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day. In it, she asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question resonated deeply with Brent and was one he asked not only of himself, but also of his friends and his students. As a way of honouring Brent’s life and memory, then, I challenge each of you to ask that question of yourself not only today, but in the days ahead, especially when you find yourself just going through the motions or being caught up in the demands of daily life. Let me repeat the question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Dearest Brent, you did so very much with your own wild and precious life. You taught us. You inspired us. You made us better people. We love you and we will miss you and you will live on in our hearts.