To Live in the Age of Melting: Northwest Passage

by evalyn parry

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Riding the wave of two iconic folk songs ("Northwest Passage" by Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers, and the traditional "Lady Franklin's Lament") evalyn parry's twenty-minute "musical essay" embarks on a sonic journey that travels from Franklin’s doomed 19th century expedition to contemporary Arctic Sovereignty; from climate change to the human nervous system, along the way probing the nature of colonial legacy, tradition, and what happens when old, frozen parts of the world we know – and parts of ourselves - begin to melt.


To Live in the Age of Melting: Northwest Passage

"Oh for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin, reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line, through a land so wide and savage
To make a Northwest Passage to the sea"

i. Vagus

There is a remarkable nerve that travels through the human body,
Called the Vagus Nerve.
Also known as the rambler, or the Wanderer, Vagus is the longest nerve
in the central nervous system
It wanders from brainstem to colon,
along the way connected and innervating
the outer ear, the throat, the lungs, portions of the viscera,
and on its journey back to the voice box, it circles the heart

ii. Mapping
You can trace the lines on a map of a country,
chart your way to the heart of a country.
Explore, stake a claim: go down in history,
write your name on a spot on the map, claim you “found” it
but does that make it yours?
What does “discover” mean?
To be pointed in the right direction, by someone who will not be named,
Someone who knows the frozen land like the back of their weathered hand
Someone about whom no song will be written.
Look closer.
Consider the lines, the roads and waterways spreading
in a vast network: nervous system of the continent, a fine mesh,
filigree, reaching every extremity
a sentient, living system where nothing is alone, everything is connected.
If not at the point of original contact, then still, somewhere.

"Oh for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin, reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage,
To make a northwest passage to the sea. "

iii. Franklin

To chart a path through what is uncharted, to attempt to sail
through what is frozen. To set out from home in 1845
on two three hundred and fifty ton boats, bound for the Canadian Arctic
equipped with a three year supply of food,129 sailors;
bone china, proper tea pots, silver cutlery
to never be heard from again.
Frozen water, frozen men, waiting for the thaw, then starting again.
To try to make passage quickly, before running water turns solid:
To freeze and thaw, to thaw and freeze,
to slowly starve.
To eat your leather boots, rather than to ask for help
from the people who know how to weather this winter.
To be poisoned by the lead solder
of your own tin cans.
To die of starvation, lead poisoning, botulism and scurvy,
pneumonia, hypothermia,
to be devoured by wolves, to be devoured by ambition
to be devoured by men driven to the known ends of the known earth
(or the unknown ends of the unknown earth).
To live with ice.
To try surviving.
To die trying.

"Oh for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin, reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage,
To make a northwest passage to the sea."

iv. Tradition

I was raised in a tradition: squeeze boxes in the kitchen.
Heads thrown back, call and response, feet stomping, gut strings thrumming.
Believing in the songs I was raised with .
Songs sung from festival stages, around campfires,
Sitting in circles, standing in lines:
You can circumnavigate the globe in song, but you know you are home
When you know all the words
A song is a heartbeat: involuntary.
Tradition is a hand-me-down,
it is the way things are done without question
it is what you are given to pass on.
It is what will live on after you are gone.

My father loved a good, old fashioned folk song.
A lusty singalong, or a good sad song: shanties, sailors, songs of drinking, carousing, good times and adventure.
Old songs, handed down across generations:
those frozen ghosts who dreamed of discovery
trying to chart this great, white north.
Or new songs, that sound like old songs
that tell of the old ways going, going…gone.

My father was a family man, but often absent. The sound of his guitar and singing familiar, but private: a solitary practice that shouldn’t be interrupted, the soul of an artist always yearning for something more.
The wandering nerve.
The nerve of all those men, then courage and audacity,
trying to find that elusive, almost mythical passageway by water,
object of so many failed, frozen expeditions.
Planting their names like flags, like hope:
A trail of breadcrumbs over the frozen crust of the north,
determined they would not be turned back but find a way through.
Willing to trade their lives
or the lives of others
for a dream.

"We were homeward bound, one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock, I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream, and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew

With a hundred seamen, he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of may
Seeking passage around the pole,
Where we poor sailors do sometimes go"

v. Lady Franklin Laments

Distraught with grief, Lady Franklin, wife of the explorer,
commissions a new expedition to find the lost expedition:
Stratum of searching: the race to discover the passage,
the ensuing race to collect the reward for finding the lost explorers
who are trying to find the passage.
Inuit report seeing British sailors roaming the tundra,
stark mad: committing the ultimate, unspeakable act of survival.
Horrified, Lady Franklin commissions the popular Charles Dickens
to rewrite the story for the dailies: thus, Inuit,
not sailors, will go down in history for their cannibal activities.

"Through cruel hardships they vainly strove,
Their ships on mountains of ice were drove
Only the Eskimo, with his skin canoe
Was the only one who ever came through"

"Oh for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin, reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and"

vi. Savage

I have my reservations about singing this word. Speaking this word.
Reservations were made, thinking they would be an adequate solution.
Called them reserves, implying sanctity, something held precious,
Worthy of preservation.
Now of course it is all about reparation, compensation:
Tax breaks, identity cards issued, apologies.
But words are not enough. money is not enough.
The damage is too deep. It goes back too many generations.
Colonial passage was wide and savage.

I read about suicides again in the paper.
Substance abuse. Substantial abuses.
I think about all that was taken away from this wide and savage land
and it’s original residents.

Consider the word “reserve”, picture the reserved, stiff upper lips
of those colonial fathers who turned desire and longing
into empire, dominion.

Consider how our mothers always taught us
to return a thing better than the way we found it.
How instead we have built fences around land,
when fences are in fact futile:
How the ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone,
land bone to water bone.
How water circulates. Pollution circulates.
Dis-ease circulates: not reserved only for those who created it:
Those who made the bed are not the only ones who lie in it.

Oh for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage

vii. Sovereignty

Common knowledge now that the Northwest Passage
is no longer in hiding.
This long imagined international waterway is now becoming passable
for more months of the year, opening up new possibilities
for global circumnavigation.

When ice never thaws, you can build a home on it.
But what happens when the temperature rises,
and the land you live on
starts dissolving: turns to water.

Can you still call it yours?
Can you still call it Canada?
What else can be discovered?
What song does the melting ice sing?
Listen, the pitch is rising:
the song of the ice ancient, urgent, tenacious as memory.
Full of fossils: fuel.
The Innu elders throat singing:
passing the winter in song, passing a song
from one mouth to another.

"In Baffins Bay, where the whale fish blow
The fate of franklin, no man may know.
The fate of Franklin, no tongue can tell.
Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell."

viii. Amend

You can live with ice, frozen in a winter that never ends.
You can tough it out, or ask for help.
Eat whale blubber, or lead soldered tin cans.
You can bring out your fine china.
You can listen to the keening of icebergs, cracking like tea cups.
Hold yourself responsible.
Watch the ice separate, melt.
Discover the sensation of melting in the chest: warmth, softening:
Make an opening.
Amend. Can Canada our home on Native land.
Draw a new map.
You can make amends, and still make a mess of it.
See the consequences:
Human beings hanging from the ceilings of their despair.
You can turn to face the future, the songs of your ancestors
Running in your veins like debt.
Seek your own Northwest passage, that frozen place that might thaw
And allow you through: allow safe passage between the continent of yourself and the continent of another.

"And now my burden, it gives me pain
For my long lost Franklin I would cross the main
Ten thousand pounds would I freely give
To know on earth that my Franklin do live"

You can break the ice. Be an ice breaker.
Search for that place in which we are all connected, not separate.
In which what happens to one, happens to all.
Traverse that archipelagic waterway.

Imagine the night a new song was born.
Stan Rogers, driving through the dark
in his folk singers four wheeled vessel.
I remember my father, singing in the front seat to keep himself awake,
my brother and I in the back seat,
on coming headlights flickering over us like waves
adrift on an ocean of ghosts: song after song.
I am singing them now: these sharp tools,
handed down to me without instructions.

Oh for just one time,
I would take the Northwest Passage.
Trace a line.
Find the end of a river, the nerve that wanders,
that wraps around the parts of us that sing.


released September 16, 2014
"Northwest Passage" by Stan Rogers used by permission
"Lady Franklin's Lament" is a traditional song

other words and lyrics by evalyn parry
recorded by Don Kerr
produced by Don Kerr and evalyn parry

vocals, guitar and shruti box by evalyn parry



all rights reserved


evalyn parry Toronto, Ontario

Award-winning Canadian songwriter, spoken word artist and theatre creator evalyn parry's genre-bending performances explore a powerful vision of social change. She's been featured at music, storytelling, pride, poetry, and theatre festivals all over the continent, taking her unique perspective on the world and transforming it into art that spans genres, genders and generations. ... more

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