Ballads for the backcountry

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I Wonder how many New Zealand Geographic readers would recognise these lines:

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold…”

It wouldn’t surprise me if some could go on to recite The Cremation of Sam McGee in its entirety. It is 100 years since Sam McGee was published—a ballad that, along with the The Shooting of Dan McGrew and a handful of others in Songs of a Sourdough, earned its author, Robert Service, overnight fortune and fame.

My introduction to the Bard of the Yukon came cour­tesy of Mrs McLeod, my drama teacher in Standard One at Owairaka Primary. (Those were the days of primers and standards—now replaced by the bland “Year X.”) She was a formidable presence. From her rouged cheeks to her flamboyant clothing to her sonorous elocution, she was nothing if not dramatic. To a seven-year-old, she was unforgettable.

I was fortunate to have many such teachers who thought children should be taught to recite. So we solemn­ly intoned Kipling’s paean to Auckland—”Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart”—and declaimed with tragic intensity “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,” and feigned mysterious in “Slowly, silently, now the moon / Walks the night in her silver shoon”— amused then, as now, by that archaic word.

But it was Service who opened the door to a Boy’s Own world of mushing and gold-grubbing, of cold that “stabs like a driven nail” and silence that “bludgeons you dumb.” A world in equal parts beautiful and dangerous, savage and free:

“The strong life that never knows harness;

The wilds where the caribou call;

The freshness, the freedom, the farness-

O God! How I’m stuck on it all.”

Canada’s vagabond of verse has accompanied me on many a backcountry tramp. My copy of The Spell of the Yukon is permanently warped and watermarked from a drenching in the Makarora. But the grip of the words is potent still:

“They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,They have soaked you in convention through and through;They have put you in a showcase; you’re a credit to their teaching—But can’t you hear the Wild?—it’s calling you.”Of course, the New Zealand tramper has no need to look to a Canadian for inspiration. There are plenty of poets closer to home to liven the night-time korero in a mountain but or around a drift­wood fire. One might quote Glov­er’s “Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle / The magpies said.” Or Baxter:

“Upon the upland road

Ride easy, stranger:

Surrender to the sky

Your heart of anger.”

But balladeers like Service (who never considered himself a real poet, merely a versifier and a rhymester) hold their own in such luminous company. The rhythms suit the hours of uphill trudging and downhill striding, and the stories conjure the pioneering past.

In Shining with the Shiner, John A. Lee wrote about one all-night campfire session with a group of swagmen. Each recited, and no one judged the offerings for literary merit, for if a poem “had the flavour did it matter if it was Banjo Bill, Henry Lawson, David McKee Wright?” For his part, Lee’s rapscallion hero, Shiner Slattery, dances a jig while singing this ditty:

“I picked up my hat,

And I spat on my stick,

And out on the road

Like a deer I did flit;

I buttoned my coat,

And I kindled my pipe

And I off like a hare

In the morning.”

With summer upon us and the backcountry beckon­ing, don’t overlook that book of favourite verses when you pack. The poet Robert Pinsky said: “The longer I live, the more I see there’s something about reciting rhythmical words aloud—it’s almost biological—that comforts and enlivens human beings.”

The appeal of Service—a bank manager who “cheer­fully exchanged the bondage of a settled existence for vagabondage”—is that he wrote both rollicking bar-room ballads and soul-stirring anthems to what he called “the Vastness”, the unfathomable world of nature. Of the two, it was the latter he wanted to be remembered for. Late in his life he wrote: “To see the ordinary with eyes of marvel may be a gift; or it may be there is no ordinary, and wonder is the true vision.”

Note: There is an excellent reading of The Cremation of Sam McGee on the video site YouTube—go to com/watch?v=61Bkuz1TIVc

Kennedy Warne was the founding editor of New Zealand Geographic and served as editor until the end of 2003. He now writes articles for New Zealand Geographic (most re­cently on moose and the Poor Knights) and the American, National Geographic, but is still awaiting an assignment to the Yukon.

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