What’s in a Plate?

By Robert Perkins

What’s in a plate? If you came across it in my cupboard, you’d not consider it special. An old enamel tin plate, chipped, humble in its provenance and use, nothing special. When I die, it will be taken to the second-hand store and sold for less than a dollar.  We all harbor objects like my plate, seemingly inconsequential, but to us who know their story, irreplaceable.

I found the plate in a dump. I had to dig down. It was a badly covered hole in the ground from the 1950s, full of empty tin cans, broken fishing rods, bullet casings, and the other debris from living in a tundra cabin in the middle of nowhere. Other than curiosity, I had no reason to dig and I found the plate. The dump is on an island in Gary Lake, hundreds of miles from the nearest town, on a river called the Back River that flows northeast through the tundra beyond Yellowknife and enters Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic Ocean. The river is five hundred and sixty miles of pure, uninterrupted bliss. The tundra is the largest last true wilderness left on our crowded planet.

In the early 1950s, Father Joseph Buliard was looking for unconverted “natives.” The Inuit in the area he arrived in father south had already been taken, either into the Catholic faith or the Protestant. In flying over Gary Lake, he spied a handful of families, and returned to build a simple cabin on an esker island. He was on his own. He’d come from France, a small town on the Swiss border, and he was a member of the Catholic Order of Mary Immaculate, or OMI, whose vow was to serve the poorest and the most in need. He had a lot to learn. The 1950s were a desperate time in the arctic. Supplies were scarce after WWII. Winter starvations became the norm. He became a focus of attention for the families around him, and more families moved in to be near his mission and the food he could provide. His mission lasted a few years, and then he disappeared, falling through early fall ice checking his fishing nets. Or so the story goes. Nobody knows the real story.

The cabin has been abandoned ever since. Infrequent travelers and fishermen use it for shelter. It’s a solid wall in a storm. There’s a half-mile of white sand beach, a good place to be picked up at the end of the summer. There’s a rock to the left of the door that makes a comfortable seat. It’s a good view across the lake. The lake and the landscape keep their own company. No Inuit live on the land anymore. It’s very quiet. Bits of the cabin rattle in the wind. The passages of bugs, larger animals and birds, are marked in the sand. I like the birds best. Their tracks go along and then just stop, two little indents where their wing tips lifted off. The wind blows the beach grasses that make their sweep of a curve in the sand. You only see the wind through what it touches.

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