Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
    In the rabbit hole
a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

February 2006
Breathing water and pine

There is something about the air.  As soon as you step out of the car, the smell overwhelms you.  It’s a combination of pine, earth and water in a clean, almost dust-free air.  You fill your lungs and wonder, what the heck have I been breathing until now?

Then you swat your first mosquito.

Welcome to Labelle.

The lake is about 20 km long, narrow (1.5 km at its widest), and deep.  Gouged out by gigantic glaciers, along with thousands of others on the great Canadian Shield, it is surrounded by rolling hills forested with a mixture of pine, maple and birch.  The winter’s ice begins to arrive in November and doesn’t leave till the end of April.  And  because of its length and depth, the lake’s waters stay cool through the hottest days of July and August.  In the spring it is home to millions of blackflies who die out by late June only to be replaced by millions of mosquitoes.  By mid-July, the mosquitoes, too, have thinned but they are joined by horseflies and deerflies during the day and no-seeums at dusk.  Giant dragonflies and small bats feast on these bugs, cheered along by human witnesses. 

My childhood was defined by weekends in Labelle, and long summer weeks that stretched into months as different adults cycled through to supervise the kids who, blissfully, thought they could run the place.  We’d arrive at the end of a long car ride, late Friday night, after picking up fresh bread in the town bakery, and fresh cream at Mme. Terrault’s general store.  The cream, unpasteurized and thick, would whip itself in the several miles ride on the bumpy dirt road to our parking spot.  We’d load the boat by car headlight beam and flashlight and cross by moonlight, starlight, and, sometimes, by boatlight alone.  When we arrived at the house, the gas lamps were lit, the kerosene ones, too.  And we’d tumble under eiderdowns till morning.

We dared each other to swim the first weekend after the ice broke.  We caught frogs by the dozens.  We learned to build fires, chop wood, drive a motor boat, start a pump.  We watched my father take apart and rebuild a 60 horsepower engine—not that he ever got it to really work.  We pulled each other on homemade boards with a 9 horsepower outboard.  We spent hours, days, weeks, holed up in the Blackhouse reading hundreds upon hundreds of comic books.

It’s the air, though, that has me coming back as an adult, year after year.  There are indelible smells—wood smoke, gasoline exhaust, propane gas, calamine lotion—also associated with Labelle.  You stop noticing the air within a few minutes of your arrival.  But when it’s time to go, and you approach the car, an acrid smell of pollution hits you, and you turn away to breathe Labelle air—nothing is like it.

“Ici, la crasse est saine,” my Uncle Heinz proclaimed—here, dirt is healthy.  The lake water has fewer bacteria in it than the drinking water in Montreal—despite the boats and homes that circle the lake.  Our bodies are cleaner in Labelle than anywhere else since we spend so much time in the water. 

Family come from across the world to stay—in old cabins with windows that don’t open or shut properly, with beds that sometimes sag in the middle.  They’ve come for 50 years, despite the lack of hot water, or electricity (although that is soon to change), or telephone.  “Ce n’est pas civilisé, ici,” the Parisian partner of one of my cousins complained.  And yes, Labelle doesn’t fit into Old World civilization.  An aunt of my mother’s was appalled after her one visit.  Why this was no better than a pauper’s home in a shtetl.  We were cooking on wood, for goodness sakes.  Yet, each sibling and cousin who grew up there, brings their would-be spouses for a week—for the Labelle test.  Can their partner manage in a crowd of as many as 18, in two cabins and a few acres of land, where the major activities consist of eating, sleeping, swimming, and reading on the porch—when not dealing with at least one major plumbing or boating problem?  Can he or she leave at peace and yearning to return?  A few have failed.  We don’t miss them.  The air is sweeter when you’re with people who love it, too.

One autumn day, years ago, when the sun lit up the blue sky and the multi-colored trees on shore, when the water lapped up clear and rippled, and when the breeze brought fresh air and a promise of frost, my father stood on the pier with Monsieur Terrault, one white haired and tall, a Czechoslovakian who had survived the European war, the other shorter, dark haired, “du pays,” his face lined and ruddied by a lifetime of outdoor labor.  They looked out onto the lake and the hills beyond.  “On dirait que c’est bon pour l’âme,” M. Terrault said.  My father breathed in and nodded.  Labelle is good for the soul



A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in college, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages. She was a finalist for the Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children's Literature in both 2001 and 2002.

One of her stories has appeared in Ladybug magazine, and a middle-grade, magical-realism novel is scheduled for publication in autumn 2007. Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec.

In the Rabbit Hole began in December 2005
"It's just a children's book"
Reconciling to the Impossible


Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com

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"Breathing water and pine" copyright © February 2006 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2006