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Here is a nostalgic reflection on childhood.

THE WILL TO BELIEVE

      I have just returned from a small excursion to the John Janzen Nature Center, not far from our home, and situated in the North Saskatchewan River valley beside Fort Edmonton Park. It is the most scenic part of Edmonton and probably among the loveliest areas that the prairies have to offer. Birch and poplars climb densely up the eroded inclines and their bare October branches mingle near the top with white and yellow street lamps. The effect is that of loneliness in a crowd, rural openess within the city limits.

      My two daughters, despite their tiredness after a day of Halloween excitement, have experienced possibly the first bonfire they will remember, all sponsored by the Nature Center. The event is part of the excellent program of nature study and awareness for the very young that the Center has been promoting for the last few years, and it has become so popular that my wife actually received a phone call to ask if we could come on a different evening, as our day had been oversubscribed. It turned out we could not, and we had to endure a rather too large crowd, though on the whole I found the outing quite pleasant. Camille, our four-year-old, however, found the press of people, most of whom were larger than herself, to be oppressive and a little frightening, and the look on her face at times as the crowd moved along the trail to hear the "Forest Wizard" reminded me of very distant memories when I was her age and dreaded large gatherings. That dread has never entirely left me.

      But the dread was offset, both for her and for me, by a certain pristine magic that a fire can evoke. Memories, ancient memories of which we are no longer even aware, appear in the flickering of an open fire, be it in the open or in the comfort of our living room. The Forest Wizard was a staff member at the Center, of course, and he was conjured up by an assistant who stood on a picnic table before the great fire while other helpers set long torches ablaze by holding them in the flames. She had the children, and the children in the adults, hold their palms to the flames to warm them and to absorb their magic spell. Then a rubbing together of palms and a collective hum (a powerful sound rarely heard these days) caused the appearance of the wiz. He came from some distance, dressed in a monkish robe, bearded, and accompanied by a torch bearess, as he styled her. He played a simple reed flute, and not well, but the sound was touching and in a strange way, familiar. Not that he played a known tune, he seemed in fact to be improvising a melody which came out appropriately modal, whether he knew it or not. But the effect, the notes barely heard from the distance and never very loud even as he got closer, was of a more primitive time. Thoughts came to me of Celtic legend, of J.R.R. Tolkien, of Wagner---not the music, but the dark spirit---and somehow I found myself wishing to believe that here really was a priest.

      His face glowed and flickered in the warm light and he spoke in a voice that was alternately authoritative as befits a proper priest, then pusilanimous as he momentarily forgot his character and his lack of actor's training came though. But one could forgive a few lapses since his dialogue was entertaining to the children and occasionally even witty to the adults. Indeed Elan's (my oldest daughter's) face, despite the fact that she recognized him from previous visits to the Center, clearly revealed that she, too, wanted to believe; a much simpler task for persons of seven than for those six times that age.

      He told the children that they had to help the forest plants and animals go to sleep for the winter, and led the group into the woodland trail, four torches lighting the way and nearly setting a pine tree inadvertently afire. In his priest/street voice he gave them earthy tasks to perform: warming the buds on the bushes with their magic hands, tossing sunflower seeds to the hibernating animals so that they might find something to eat if they woke up before the end of the winter, and blowing warm air over a small pond to put the water and earth to sleep. Hokey and contradictory to be sure, but the evening was beautiful, and the air still warm despite the date and the latitude. And in the half light of torches and faraway street lamps, standing in the faint wisps of smoke with the pond and poplars behind him, being by turns overly dramatic and then uncertain, and with the audience's groaning "Om", I could pretend with the children that this really was a druidic shaman, and that hobbits really did run in those woods.

      But friendly little creatures and kindly Merlins are only one side of the nostalgic coin. The other, the darker side, is only hinted at in fairy tales, often with graphic gruesomeness to be sure, but still never stated with full existential impact. I think children sense this and, like adults, prefer not to think about it. Instead, like adults, they imagine good fairies or angels, benign spirits, a loving God, or some such comforting nonsense. The Forest Wizard hinted by his shadowy appearance and sunken eye sockets in the torchlight, and all unintentionally, that this dark side was indeed there. His job after all, was to inspire awe of nature rather than fear or angst, yet angst was there, I think, palpably present in the wonderment of the children and in the bemusement of the adults. This sense is what priests and the priestly class have ever exploited.

      And so my feelings at this moment were a complex mixture, indeed, as I watched the mesmerized faces of my children. I relived with them the primitive past of our species. I felt the wonderment and the delicious fear that this harmless "forest wizard" inspired, and I stared into the fire, letting the synapses of a simpler, reptilian brain overwhelm for a moment (but just for a moment) the superior superstructure above.

      Later, as we drove away in our vehicle which would have been genuine magic to a druid, my feelings resolved into two clear sensations: deep relief, the profoundest relief possible, that we as a society are no longer so much under the power of such wizards; and deep fear, infinitely deeper than mere panic, that I or my children may one day see the return to power of the unscrupulous priestly class in this part of the world.

      The quiet sleep of the children in the back seat reaffirmed my resolve to make them strong enough, if I can, to battle the wizard, to reduce him from something significant and larger than life to a means of catharthis. We need to see him from time to time to remind us of the true horror that underlies his avuncular appearance.


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