The Real Reason We Write Books

Inukshuk: Courtesy of Vancouver Tourism

The old Indian gentleman had watched the sun rise and fall on both sides of the mountains for many years. He was proud. He was stoic.  His face was as chiseled by time as the stone image that hid away in the timbered highlands of British Columbia just north of Vancouver.

The image had been fashioned from stones ceremoniously piled one on top of the other.

It could have been a cross.

But it possessed no religious significance.

It could have been the primitive and ancient statue of a man with his arms thrown open wide.

And perhaps it was.

“We call it an Inukshuk,” the old man said.

“What does it mean?”

“In the likeness of man,” he said. “You always seem to find one when you least expect it and usually in the far and distant back country.”

“It must be an old custom,” I said.

“It’s a tradition,” he said.

“Who builds them?”

“Whoever goes where no one has gone before him.”

“What is the significance of the Inukshuk?” I asked.

“They have become signposts for travelers,” he said. “They let you know that you are on the right path.”

“How does it know where I’m going?”

He smiled.

“It knows where you should be going,” he said.

This time, I smiled along with him.

“And sometimes,” he said, “they rise up in the forest to show where food has been stored.” The old man shrugged. “You eat what you harvest from the woodlands and preserve the rest for those who walk behind you.”

The British Columbian landscape can be forbidding.

Mountains are entangled with mountains.

Valleys are hidden.

Trails vanish at the edge of cliffs.

It is always a welcome sight, the old man said, when you find the stone sculpture of an Inukshuk waiting for you.

“Mostly,” the old man said, “we build an Inukshuk to let you know – as you walk a strange and unfamiliar land – that you are not alone. You are not lost. We have left our footprints on the ground beneath your shoes. We want you to know that we were here.”

I nodded.

It made sense. It made sense in more ways than one.

“We do the same thing,” I said. “We want people who come along years after we are gone to know that we walked the same streets and lived the same kinds of lives they do.”

The old man raised an eyebrow. “You build Inukshuks, too?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “but that’s why we write books.”

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Chasing Love and Other Ghosts.

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