At 74, Patrick Lane remains one of Canada’s most celebrated poets. Last week, he was named to the Order of Canada. And last month he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna – particularly meaningful since the school is just down the road from Vernon, where Mr. Lane grew up and spent his early years scrounging a living. In his address to the convocation, he spoke powerfully of those tough, formative years and, in particular, of an extraordinary incident that has affected his life ever since. It taught him the value of beauty. When he finished, there was silence, followed by rapturous applause.
Back in early December of 1958, I was 19 years old, living with my wife and baby boy in a two-room apple picker’s shack a few miles down the road from here. I had a job driving dump truck for a two-bit outfit that was working on a short stretch of highway just down the hill from where this university was built so many years later. I remember leaving the shack and walking out to stand by the highway in the wind and snow. I stood there shivering in my canvas coat as I waited to be picked up by the grader operator in his rusted pickup truck. The sky was hard and grey. Its only gift that winter day was ice disguised as a fragile, bitter snow.
As I stood there in the false dawn, I looked up for a moment and as I did an iridescent blue butterfly the size of my palm fluttered down and rested on the sleeve of my coat just above my wrist. It was winter, it was cold and I knew the Okanagan Valley where I had lived most of my young life did not harbour huge, shiny blue butterflies, not even in summer. I remember stripping off my gloves and cupping the insect in my hands, lifting that exquisite creature to the warmth of my mouth in the hope I could save it from the cold. I breathed upon the butterfly with the helplessness we all have when we are faced with an impossible and inevitable death, be it a quail or crow, gopher, hawk, child or dog. I cupped that delicate butterfly in the hollow of my hands and ran back to the picker’s shack in the hope that somehow the warmth from the morning fire in the woodstove might save it, but when I reached the door and opened my hands, the butterfly died.
I do not know what strange Santa Anna, Squamish or Sirocco jet-stream wind blew that sapphire butterfly from far off Mexico, Congo or the Philippines to this valley. I only know the butterfly found its last moments in my hands. I have never forgotten it and know the encounter changed me. There are mornings in our lives when beauty falls into our hands and when that happens, we must do what we can to nurture and protect it. That we sometimes fail must never preclude our striving. The day the beautiful creature died in my hands, I looked up into the dome of the hard, cold sky and I swore to whatever great spirit resided there in the dark clouds that I would live my life to the full and, above all, I would treasure beauty. I swore, too, that I’d believe in honesty, faithfulness, love and truth. The words I spoke were the huge abstractions the young sometimes use, but I promised them to myself and, now, more than half a century later, I stand here in front of your young minds, your creative spirits, your beautiful lives, and I can tell you that I have tried.
I told myself that year and in the subsequent years in the sawmill crews and construction gangs I worked with that I would become a writer, a poet, a man who would create an imagined world out of the world I lived in, that I would witness my life and the lives of others with words. The years went by filled with the tragedies and losses that all our lives are filled with. My brother’s early death, my father’s murder, my divorce and the loss of my children did not change the promises I made. There were times I lived a dissolute, irresponsible and destructive life. There were times, too, when I was depressed and wretched, but I continued to believe in spite of my weaknesses and fears. I wandered the world and as I did I wrote of the lives that shared my times. And I wrote of this Okanagan Valley, its lakes and hills, its stones, cacti, cutthroat trout, magpies, rattlesnakes and, yes, its butterflies.
What I have told you is a story. It arose from my life for where else but from a life can a story come? What I promise each of you is that there will come a day or night, a morning or evening when something as rare and fine as a blue sapphire butterfly will fall into your hands from a cold sky, a fearful child will climb into your bed and cleave to you, a woman or man will weep, will laugh, will sleep with you in the sure belief that the one they abide with is governed by a good and honest love. No matter the degrees you have earned and the knowledge you have accumulated, remember to believe in yourselves, to believe in each other. In a world as fearful as our present one, I ask that you not be afraid. Today is merely an hour. Remember in the time ahead of you to hold out your hands so that beauty may fall safely into them and find a place – however briefly – to rest.