The other day my wife looked at me in a familiar way and said, “You are such a ‘rowboat’ thinker.” I knew immediately what she was getting at.
Maybe it’s because I grew up with a father and grandfather who were inveterate hand-line fishers out of clinker-built rowboats.
They first got me out on the water when I was four years old. Our fishing adventures began at Sechelt, on the Sunshine Coast, and I harbour fond memories of Dad and “Cappie” (Capt. Robinson, my paternal grandfather) rowing me back and forth off the beach at Sechelt.
We towed hand-lines with six-ounce Peetz weights, Tom Mack herring dodgers and Tom Mack 3 silver spoons with barbed, single hooks. We certainly caught salmon, but mostly it was juvenile salmon grilse that we hauled in, hand over hand, to take home for breakfast.
More than our early-morning catch, I remember sitting in the stern listening to my elders telling me stories, eye to eye and man to boy.
I also remember how odd it was that the oarsmen looked back instead of forward as they rowed. It was great for discussion but I always wondered how they knew where they were going? Didn’t you have to look forward to pedal a bike of drive a car? Why did these men row with their backs to their destinations and turning points on our fishing tacks?
Over a few years of fishing with Cappie and Dad, I came to realize that it was as if they had eyes in the back of their heads. They always knew where they were going. And we always got there.
Most of all I remember the stories they told as we rowed along towing our salmon gear. I learned from them how to tell my stories, too. And subtly (and occasionally not so subtly) I learned about family issues, education and career ideas, and politics.
Those early summer mornings in the family rowboat were my first seminars. Today when I consider political, educational and economic issues, I often think back to my first advisers and wonder, “How would they react if they were alive today?”
Occasionally, I also augment Cappie and Dad’s opinions with others I heard – from my uncles and second cousins especially.
And that’s why my wife calls me a rowboat thinker. I test opinions and future actions by casting my thoughts backwards, wondering what the old (and I admit, largely male) guard would think.
Increasingly, I recognize the problems with this mode of back-casting. It’s overwhelmingly male-centric, for one. It’s also based on wisdom earned before social media and the swarm of information technology. It’s in no way informed about climate change, and other paradigm earthquakes like the rise of oligarchs and billionaires, as the influence of civil society and democratic institutions wanes to the point of incipient societal anarchy.
The best I can say for it is that it contains family wisdom. And it’s the case that my forebears numbered a healthy selection of distinguished thinkers – a professor of medicine, a federal deputy minister, a private school headmaster, a port captain and a colonel in the U.S. army. I definitely remember that they were worth listening to, and they were at their best when they were all together for family vacations and holidays.
So where does that leave me today, when so many issues worthy of thought are untethered to wisdom earned prior to even the 2000s?
I must also note that many current right-wing politicians (e.g. Jason Kenney in Alberta and most Republican U.S. senators) base their policy thinking on parallel antiquarian dogma, and not contemporary science or even democratic values. This trend gives me cause for alarm; it causes me to suspect my own rowboat tendencies.
As a result, increasingly I cultivate my ‘kayak’ thought processes. I come by those skills from direct experience also. My wife and I, starting in our late-20s, have kayaked Haida Gwaii, the Bunsby Islands, Nuuchatlitz, Nootka Sound and the Broken Group off B.C.’s west coast over the past 40 years.
We know how to read the weather and tides before making big inlet crossings. You do so by looking forward and integrating what’s in front off you with life experience.
Kayak thinking relies much more on the moment. It’s a mode of thought much better suited to our present struggles.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. He is currently chair emeritus of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.