In the fall of 1987 I was working on a performance piece called Back From Away with Christine Trainor, Carl Stewart and Michael Leon. Having recently returned to Prince Edward Island from a year-and-a-half in the Yukon, the piece focused on the common dynamic of leaving the Island for work or education, only to be pulled back by memories of childhood, family, friends and the landscape.
In writing the piece I noticed that in reviving stories from childhood, writing them down, rehearsing and revising them, these manufactured versions of the memories supplanted the originals; they became my childhood memories. At the time, I took this as a warning that one had to be very careful about what one wrote down because it could destroy the genuine experience.
This naïve, youthful misunderstanding of the working of memory failed to take into account two factors: both the fragility and the resilience of memory. First, memories fade and if you don’t write them down, they may well be lost—something a 26-year-old could not really appreciate. Second, all memories are constantly being revised, recreated and re-imagined.
In his post on memory, Mumblin’ Jack cites an Oliver Sacks article that elucidates how our memories are under constant revision, so much so that we can even become convinced that events from other people’s lives that we may only read about, hear told to us, or see on TV or in the movies can be co-opted, eventually being remembered as our own, lived experience. Furthermore, as my experience with Back From Away showed me, we can even be the authors of own “false” memories.
While working on Back From Away, something out of the ordinary happened. A blue whale washed ashore at Nail Pond on the west end of the Island. We raced down and photographed the magnificent remains of the creature. We then worked the whale into our performance. I wrote this poem that was subsequently published in The New Poets of Prince Edward Island 1980-1990.
A Sunday Drive to the Sea
It was a time people accepted
The little deaths
Of leaves and flowers;
It was November and cold.
Ocean news surprised us all,
A big death,
A blue belly-up whale,
Its final agony caused
A late autumn storm,
Or was it the other way round.
We and a hundred others stood,
Wind skidding sea-foam across the sand,
Amidst a country fair atmosphere;
An old woman kept mumbling:
“De friggin’ ting must weigh tons’n’tons.”
And newly arrived on The Island, also,
You jokingly asked:
“I hope I didn’t come here to die?”
But many do
Just to die
And we’re used to gathering
Around the dead.
Some would even say
We enjoy it.
The blue whale was buried and over the years all the photographs I had of her vanished, but, much like the childhood memories we explored in Back From Away, she refused to remain hidden. A team of scientists dug her up, transported her remains to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and put her skeleton on display, the latest incarnation of the lovely leviathan – a creature of the deep sea beached and then buried in the earth, only to rise skeletal, hovering in mid-air.