Scrolls

When I think back to the number of books that have affected my life, I’m incredulous. The line snakes back through fifty-five years and touches on virtually everything. Sometimes I feel as though the doorway to a library was where I was always supposed to go. In fact, the absence of effective and immediate teachers from my family and culture was removed from me as a toddler and the world of books offered me guidance and wisdom.

When I visited the Kenora Public Library way back in 1960 when I first learned to read, I was amazed. Through the back door where the kids section was, existed a world of color, dream and image that captivated me. When they told me I could take as many home as I could carry, I did. Lugging them back passed the mill into Rideout where my foster home sat was thrilling. I couldn’t wait to get to my room.

Not much has changed since then. A library card is still my most prized possession. The stacks of the library are where I feel challenged, engaged, motivated and curious. Three are always more worlds to explore and inhabit than I have time for. But I’m still on the lookout for something new to fire my imagination or simply aid me in understanding more of what I do know.

As a writer I live in the culture of books. I have for most of my life. When I open another book there is a whole new world for me to enter and inhabit. I’ve traipsed through a lot of worlds in my time and my real world has been increased by every journey. I never tire of making those journeys. Maybe it’s the kid in me that still hungers for the lure of a real good yarn, an adventure, a fantastic experience where all I know of this world is forgotten in the spell of a created one.

            But I come from a people whose world was ordered without the need of books. The Ojibway, like all native peoples in Canada, had a literature that was oral. We spoke our books. We talked our teachings. Our storytellers framed the universe for us and we had no need of printed language. Within our stories was all the stuff of great literature; pathos, tragedy, journeys, romance, great battles, heroes, villains, mystery and spiritual secrets.   

They say that at one time in our history we set our stories on the skin of birch trees. We etched them there on the bark with the blunt edge of a burnt stick or pigments formed of earth and rock and plant material that has never faded over time. Sacred scrolls holding stories meant to last forever. Books. Unbound but for the leather thong that held them, unprinted but for the hand that shaped the images, unedited but for the protocol of storytelling that guided them.  

I only ever saw a birch bark scroll once. The old man laid it out for me on a plank table top in a cabin tucked far away in the bush and traced the line of history with one arthritic finger, telling it in the Old Talk that I didn’t understand. But I could translate his eyes.

In those ancient symbols was a world where legends were alive, where an entire belief system was represented in teachings built of principles that were built themselves of rock and leaf and tree, of bird and moose and sky, and Trickster spirits nimble as dreams cajoling my people onto the land, toward themselves, toward him, toward me. Here was an entire world, a cosmology, an enduring set of principles laid down in a time long passed that promised a learning unsurpassed in my experience. Here was the magic that sustained a people.

This is what I understood from the wet glimmer of his eyes. When he looked up at me with one palm laid gently on the skin of that living scroll, there was pride there, honor, respect and understanding of what I came for, what I needed. He was telling me that words cannot exist without feeling. That a text is only as useful as the truth its holds. That dreams and reality are the same world. That what I know is less important than what I desire to know.

So inhabit what you read. Allow it to fill you. Let the intent of the spirit of the story take you where it will. Stories and books are tools of understanding on the journey of coming to know. Pick them up. Carry them. This is what I carried away. This is the message I brought to my own storytelling to here, to this page, stark in its blankness, waiting like me to be imagined, to be filled.

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About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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