GARY SAUNDERS Gary Saunders is a retired forester/naturalist who writes to understand and share.
Having friends has seldom been more important than during this COVID pandemic. Not only for oneself, but likewise for being a good friend to others. At heart we're social beings who wilt when deprived of social contact. In fact, newborns deprived of touch and love can suffer lifelong social impairment. Last week, thinking such thoughts, I remembered five friends who've brightened my life hereabouts and still do, which is more to their credit than mine, since I'm a poor hand at keeping in touch. Without naming names, let me introduce them. Among the earliest was a then young man who, soon after we settled here in 1965, came home from the Yukon to run the family farm. (He's the chess player I featured here last February in My Losing Streak column - so called because he nearly always wins.) The second friend is a forest technician I met just before retiring as a NS government extension forester in 1991. Himself now retired, he became woodlot manager and tour leader at our new outdoor education centre in the Musquodoboit Valley. His timing was good, because already I was missing the weekly social contact that a job provides. So, when he phoned to invite me on a hike up Parrsboro way, I was delighted. “Not to complain,” he said, “but every day this week I've had two busloads of kids and I really need a break...” That all-day hike was the first of many seasonal outings, rain or shine. Trouting, snowshoeing, telling jokes and stories, enjoying the scenery, talking the miles away. Often it was just to boil the kettle for tea beside some brook. At his own retirement I told how one autumn up Chignecto way a big bull moose blocked our path. Backing away, I'd whispered: “Let's walk, not run.” “Why?” said he, “All I have to do is outrun you!” The retirement audience guffawed. But I had the last word: “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Then there's the young man I met decades ago in Truro's Victoria Park where he then worked. Both being tree lovers, we later did a ceremonial brook-side transplanting of an exotic honey-locust I'd found. Mesh-wrapped by him to deter hungry whitetails, our friendship tree still thrives. Well, a few weeks ago, who should turn up but this guy on a rare visit, bringing a handsome wood carving he'd done for me. It portrays a human hand and is designed to hold artists' brushes. Below, fastened with brass tacks, is a square of birch bark on which he'd hand-lettered this poem of his: “Writer's pen/or painter's brush/creator guided /Hands/rasp file, gouge/and such/again with guided/human touch/an image from/a tree/to listen now/with inward ears/the muted notes/ Set free.” A fourth friend – fourth in time, not fourth in line –came into my life years ago via Truro's Living Earth Council. Ever since COVID, fortnightly or so, unannounced (among friends the best way), he drives out from Truro with two craft beers. At first it was Grolsch (Dutch) in its clunky green reusable bottle. Lately it's been mostly Garrison Tall Ships or Red Stripe. Sitting outdoors on the deck, beers in hand, socially distanced but of one mind, we talk art, life, politics, you name it. Our ritual helps anchor my next two weeks. My fifth friend is an Alberta-born forestry classmate I roomed with at UNB in the midfifties. Only once since then have he and I met in person; but we've always kept in touch by mail. Lately, thanks to the pandemic, we've added online contact and take turns phoning each other at month's end. We too always find plenty to talk about – and even to laugh about. Of course, there have been other dear friends long since deceased, twice including married couples, making that rare combo, the four-way conversation. Two such pairs have recently gone, as we say, to a Better Place. If it IS a better place, it will be so chiefly because it encourages – perhaps secretly arranges? – such friendships. All the more reason, while we still have time, to be better friends ourselves.