Land of the Silver Birch is a personal essay by Annahid Dashtgard. It is part of Transmission, CBC Books’ original writing series reflecting on life during COVID-19.
“Ouch!” I rub my head as it hits the car ceiling once again. This bumpy road feels like landscaped uncertainty. The cottage we’ve rented is somewhere a few miles away, on this south end of the Canadian shield, a couple hours from our city. We are surrounded by marshy swampland on either side, the straight-backed trees like a spine curled around the soft belly of lake behind them.
“Did you know this is moose territory,” I say, desperate to distract my seven-year-old daughter and my five-year-old-son from their end-of-trip grumpiness. Their faces press to the glass and suddenly… stillness. I inhale deeply.
We are two weeks into isolation, introduced to a daily mutating pandemic vocabulary made up of phrases I hadn’t previously known existed: COVID-19; social distancing; flattening the curve. Elderly people are dying in nursing homes across the country, unable to touch their loved ones for a last goodbye. Homeless shelters are hotbeds for transmission. We are told we will not have enough space, enough ventilators for everyone who will get sick.
I thought exile was a thing far in the past. When I was seven and heard that we had to flee Iran, a country in revolution, for England and then later for Canada, the illusion of safety, of a certain kind of future, was shattered. I remember walking in our garden in downtown Tehran repeating “I hate Khomeini” because I needed someone to blame for our forced eviction. Overnight I lost connection to family, community, language and culture.
Fear — deep and on-going — branded the child I was so I grew up always expecting the worst to happen. I chased after the wrong boys, sacrificed health to addiction and sabotaged happiness when it soaked in more than skin deep. In trauma studies, exile is placed at the top of the list. What can be greater than forced displacement — this sudden fault line between the past, the country and place that holds who you are, and the future, destination looming uncertain, waiting for you; the new you that will inhabit it?
We are all in exile now.
“Look! Silver birches!” my son cries, his voice spiralling out the open window. The trees are peeling, their bark fragments like mini-prayer flags waving their allegiance to Mother Earth below. Sometime soon with the coming of spring these tree skins will let go in a biologically orchestrated dance downwards. Silver birch trees shed their bark gradually, a kind of grace in action. I wonder, will I be able do the same, again?
The next morning I enter the kitchen to put coffee grounds on. We are settled into an A-line cottage typical of Ontario, on this land mass over 4.2 billion years old, covering half of Canada and formerly home to volcanic mountain ranges. It’s stunning to think of standing on top of more than a hundred hardened plates of lava.
We’ve been coming here every summer and fall for over 12 years now, the familiar rock cliffs on the drive up signalling a transition to a slower pace of living. Not this time though: as I take a sip of bitter brew, I can feel my body channelling these volcanic roots, erupting in emotion after emotion, waiting for the tempering effect of time to solidify all this feeling into a more solid state of being.
Now a month and a half into social distancing, restaurants, schools and stores are still indefinitely closed. The woods surrounding us are still covered in sheets of stubborn snow although it’s approaching the end of April. I grab my thick rain jacket to go out for a walk with the little ones. We reach the unpaved road and decide to hike up through the birch trees. On our way back, as we precariously surf the icy slopes down together and just when I think I’m home free, I hit a hidden tree root and shoot up in the air. My son, Koda, who’s often the family caretaker, runs over to me, “Are you OK, Mama?”
The next morning, I can’t get out of bed. My lower back muscles have taken this opportunity to seize and I can’t move unless bent over at the waist. I feel closer to 100 than 50 and fear that if I move too suddenly, I will dislocate my own backbone. What we are not told when thrust into the liminal space of transformation between whatever state of normal governed our lives and what the future will bring, is how excruciating the process can be. We’re not forewarned about how we will be broken, how we will eventually be asked to surrender pieces of our past selves on the altar of the future.
It took me until mid-life to reconcile the first exile, to allow myself to grieve the multiple losses. I spent years in a kind of no-persons land, caught between what had been and where I wanted to be: anchored in the knowledge that who I was belonged to where I was. After this period of lockdown, we will collectively face the projected worst global recession since the Second World War, we will have to grapple with the discriminatory impact of this virus hitting lower income and racialized communities with greater vehemence, we will need to find new ways of being — will touch ever be taken for granted again? Perhaps hardest of all, we will have to learn to live with the newly awakened awareness that at any time, exile in the form of another pandemic, or worse, could happen again.
A couple of weeks later, on one of the first mornings when I’m able to walk again — slowly — I pull out a pile of food and call, “Picnic!” Koda is the only taker, and we meander together, watching frogs leap away from our approaching footsteps. Monarch butterflies dance around our heads and my son momentarily catches one between careful hands. When we reach the shallow part of the river nearby, we see a fish caught headfirst under a rock. Its silver underbelly winks at us blindingly and it takes me a few moments to realize it’s dead, the exuberant flapping of its tail to and fro caused by the fast-moving current. Spring has arrived in her full glory and today she is showing us her prized jewels, but even here, death is an inescapable part of reality.
Sometimes, and especially as I get older, I catch glimpses of the other me, the one dancing limbs akimbo in a living room in downtown Tehran, thick Persian rugs rolled aside. I’m spinning in the centre, laughing into the faces of those pressed up against me. Yes, a part of who we are dies in the leaving, but it’s also true that exile seduces you into believing that where you left is somehow the promised land compared to the uncertain future ahead. You think the best is over and what’s to come is merely to be endured.
Over the years I’ve had to teach myself not to see dead fishes in every situation, not to search them out and turn them into whales that block the sun. I’ve had to learn to see the thousand shades of green, smell the hopeful mossy scent of earth after rain and feel the solidity of the everlasting rock under my feet. Who I am today is a more sensitive and seasoned version of the person I left behind. There is no panacea for exile, but what we notice and nurture during the time of transformation determines who we will be on the other side.
In this moment I notice the brightness in my son’s small uplifted face, his brown eyes like tiny amber planets. Drawing in a deep breath, I sing the words from an old childhood campfire song in as loud a voice as I can muster, a battlecry:
Land of the silver birch
Home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose
Wanders at will
Blue lake and rocky shore
I will come home once more…
Koda shyly joins in, hitting every third or fourth word. We sing as we walk, heading down the dusty road toward the cottage we are temporarily calling home. The silver birch trees, trunks bared waiting for the restorative heat of summer, escort us on both sides.