Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Endangered Windigo

My favorite mythological creature is not the vampire or the zombie, two recent favorites. It is the "windigo," also called wendigo, wetico, and several other variations of the word. While I do not live in the Canadian Arctic, I am familiar with him (I know of no female windigos)in various pieces of literature.

I am dimly aware that there is a comic-book monster known as Windigo. I also do not feel the need to give the windigo a filmography; not because I don't care for these genres. I am more interested in the windigo because, I fear, the windigo, like all things Arctic, faces extinction.

At one time I thought of this short essay as being a literature review. But that was taken care of for me by Windigo: An Anthology of Fact and Fantastic Fiction by John Robert Colombo, I will also mention Where the Chill Came from Cree Windigo Tales and Journeys by Howard Norman which appeared about the same time. But the first exposure I had to the windigo was in Margaret Atwood's book Strange Things : The Malevolent North In Canadian Literature, I remember reading this book practically in one sitting.

I was reintroduced to the windigo by a 1919 collection of short stories titled Toilers of the Trails by Canadian author George Tracy Marsh (1876-1945). Sure enough, there was a windigo story here, but several other stories of Indians, trappers, snowshoes, Hudson's Bay Corporation factors, and the ilk. This brought me back to a beloved adventure book called Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace. No windigo here, but a real story of how an overly ambitious explorer literally starved to death while exploring the Labrador country in eastern Canada.

Like many boys, as a youth I wanted nothing better than to be an arctic explorer. I loved winter, loved snow, and all things related to the season. I don't remember how long that 'phase' lasted, probably until the next time I had to shovel the driveway! My six-year-old son loves winter in his turn, or at least loves to make snowmen.

Will there be a winter for him to enjoy as an adult? Global warming, or at least the melting of the polar ice caps, is proceeding so quickly that they will probably be gone in my lifetime. Will polar bears face extinction (some say they already do)? And many arctic and subarctic cultures face a critical change in their way of living because ice is no longer trustworthy.

The windigo myth came about because of a fear of starvation, cannibalism, and privation. Yet in our time, these threats subside. Is that for the good? I don't know. Winter was something aggressive, something worth fighting against, a struggle that built stamina and instinct. Now the winter, and the windigo, are tame, tepid phenomena. Should we celebrate or mourn?

I have heard recent warmish winters described in gleeful terms. My reaction is more of a "You'll be sorry" reaction. Poor windigo.

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