Fort Mac invites a search for meaning but symbolism is harder than it looks

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Someone I know out West says there's a strong sense of not being allowed to explicitly connect the Fort Mac wildfires with its oil drilling activity, you have to "tiptoe" around the "meaning" or coincidence.

The prime minster warned that it's risky to draw links but they spring to mind anyway. "Ironically," said one report, "Fort McMurray has been one of the biggest boom towns of Canada's Athabasca oil sands." The irony isn't exactly subtle. And there's a long lineage to this kind of linking, especially in literature.

Milton wrote Paradise Lost, about the suffering in human existence, to "justify the ways of God to men." Symbolic linkage is compelling, maybe unavoidable. The challenge is always: what's being symbolized, in a case like Fort Mac?

Since we live in a secular age, it isn't divine retribution and even if it was, it wouldn't be visited on individual workers, their families, pets and houses. That would imply gods who are shortsighted and literal, identifying a town with the forces behind it.

Instead, you'd expect brimstone in the form of wildfires to rain down on Calgary, Ottawa, Washington, OPEC or maybe my neighbourhood in Toronto where, as Gillian Steward noted, people would surely not agree to never produce another gas-guzzling car in Ontario. Besides, if you're assuming the premise of an omnipotent Biblical God, it's his fault for putting the bitumen up there and making it so hard to mine.

If you prefer to go nontheistic and Eastern, this clearly isn't karma. If karma existed it wouldn't operate selectively on Fort Mac and the very people who didn't make the decisions that put it there. That'd be like saying soldiers in the First World War deserved what they got for volunteering or being drafted, while those who sent them never got gassed or gangrene themselves.

Plus, once you go metaphorical, since 85 to 90 per cent of Fort Mac was left standing, you have to say what it was doing was only 10 to 15 per cent damnable. Or you get into the Jonah position, where Nineveh, the sinful city, was spared because its people repented, irritating the prophet who said they'd be obliterated. Were Rachel Notley's policy reversals on climate change what saved the majority? -- symbolically of course. Symbolism can be fun but it's overrated, and hard work.

It's true, the burning town looked like Hades yet no one died (except two teenagers indirectly, in traffic). Even the pets mostly got out, giving it a Noah quality. People fled with their animals, some even towed their boats behind them. There's a kind of ironic absence of irony since they survived, often with quiet dignity -- and they'll return. The point isn't to deny the irony or even the element of reap what you sow. It's to get the images right.

It's tempting because literature is always easier than life, it's why culture does so much better than politics at coping with the world's dilemmas. Think of the Leap Manifesto, for instance, as literature. It proclaims we're in an urgent situation, demanding immediate action. Then its "writers" attend the NDP Edmonton convention and suddenly it's not so clear. They're OK with a two-year discussion period, followed maybe by adoption, then an election and perhaps finally action. Instead of what? Direct nonviolent action, like chaining yourself to the drilling apparatus or sitting on tracks in front of tanker cars.

Literature often does better at reconciling you to reality than shaping it. I've been rereading Robert Frost. He's considered bucolic but he can be pretty dark, both on destruction ("Some say the world will end in fire/Some say in ice./From what I've tasted of desire,/I hold with those who favour fire") and reconciliation ("The most unquestioning pair that ever accepted fate/And the least disposed to ascribe/Any more than they had to to hate"). But when it comes to brilliantly combining symbols and reality, consider this:

I knew a family who lost their (summer) home to fire, took months to absorb it, then told their small child. The day she heard, she poo'd her pants, though she was well out of diapers; the next day she pee'd them. Then she happily moved on. She coped with the small catastrophe far more efficiently and concretely than her parents. It was a perfect combination of symbols with reality, but you may have to be four or five to pull it off.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Premier of Alberta/flickr

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