The human brain is a truly wondrous machine. Alan Turing knew this all to well back in the 40’s when he devised his test to see if a human interrogator could tell the difference from responses from a machine or a human being. Pretty ahead of the curve when the computer was still a relative unknown outside of his own mind (It’s also a very good movie “ The Imitation Game”). Hard to even imagine life today without one especially since they pretty much run everything. Sky-net and judgment day may not be such a fictional idea after all.
My own views of the marvels of the human brain come mostly through interactions with my girls as they are putting things together. Watching them figure something out be adding up information they’ve accumulated over time is pretty remarkable. I will never forget a few years ago when all the news was reporting N1H1 flu virus and Kate’s final analysis. She was about 7 or 8 at the time and she figured if she got sick the likely hood was that she was going to die. That’s what they kept reporting on the news, focusing in on the deaths. You can get a virus via contact as it makes it’s way into your body so for a few days she stopped swallowing. That was her final solution; if she didn’t swallow she couldn’t get infected which meant she would not die. It’s a pretty sound assessment for a 7 year old. The problem being when you don’t want to swallow at school you will get sent to the office for continuously spitting on the floor. It was the first time I witnessed one of my girls add up all the information they’d collected from different sources to arrive at an apparent conclusion. As wrong as she may have been it was interesting to see how her young mind worked. I won’t even go into detail how she dealt with the E-coli outbreak last year.
I like to think my cognitive skills are a bit more advanced then that by my age but still I wonder at what the human brain can do with the flick of an invisible switch. Case in point, last week I was on my bike riding a 10KM course around our neighborhood on streets and trails I see a few times a week (weather permitting). This was the first really warm day we’d seen in a few weeks and I was out at the peak of the mid afternoon heat. I turned off the main road onto a small side road where I passed the cattle farm with very familiar farm aroma of fresh manure. This transitions to a single lane road that runs along side a creek, which eventually leads me to a pedestrian trial alongside this same creek. This paved trial was once the same single-track road I was just on but it had been closed to car traffic years ago when a new subdivision went in. Just a little ways up it was also the site of a couple scenes from the film Jumanji as was the afore mentioned cattle farm. At that exact moment as I approached the barricade to the trial I was hit with the smell of creosote covered lumber baking in the sun. A familiar smell to most of us but in an instant it triggered a memory far from my current location and thoughts during the middle of my ride. I was instantly standing on a dock as a boy with a fishing pole in my hand with my grandfather just a short ways down the dock on my right and my father to my left. We were at a place called Low Island in the town of Little Current on the largest freshwater Island in the world called Manitoulin Island. The stupid thing was that Low Island wasn’t really an Island at all; at least it had never been in all the years I’d been summering there. It was really just a peninsula but what’s in a name really. The dock it’s self was covered with this same creosote tar I smelt on my ride and you always had to be careful where you sat on a hot day otherwise you’d have a blotch on your shorts that mom just couldn’t get out. I think what shocked me was the clarity of the image in my memory and how quickly it came to me when I hadn’t been on that dock in decades. As I pedaled further on up the trail I was having all sorts of memories of that favorite fishing spot on the North Channel of Lake Huron facing another small Island called Picnic Island.
We came here to fish nearly every day on our vacations to Manitoulin for decades. Sometimes we skipped it if we had a fishing boat and the weather was good but for the most part my grandfather never liked to skip dipping a line here in the afternoon from that dock. For me my memories of this place span decades and it all flashed through my mind just on the simple trigger of that smell of creosote. There was me in the water swimming with my mask and snorkel under the dock looking for lures lost over the years. The dock we now stood on was built on the crumbling deck of the previous dock and so on and so on. I even recall the one year we arrived with the water so high we couldn’t get out too our favorite spot on the dock without boots. It’s been a few decades since I visited this place so I can only imagine what it looks like now. Thanks to the help of Google earth I was able to see where we once fished from was now no longer connected to the main dock that is still maintained. So my memories are sort of marooned offshore to a place I could never again visit unless I felt like getting really wet.
What I was revelling in was the amount of varied imagines of this place that flooded into my head like silent movies only I could see, no time stamp as in all these images I couldn’t see myself to gage the year since it was from my eyes and the people in them like my grandfather never seemed to age. My grandmother was sitting in the car in the parking lot at Low Island reading a book as she always did. She never came out on the dock ever, but she always wanted to come along for the ride and the change of scenery from the cottage I suppose. My dad teaching me how to cast with my first rode off that dock as a boy. All these memories flooded my mind triggered by the smell of some tar-covered wood. I wish there was a way to actually download these sorts of images to a hard drive to share with people because other then a few holiday snap shots I have very few actual photo’s from this place. It doesn’t make the memories any less important by not having a photo to recount the moment and maybe that even makes the memory even stronger, I don’t know. I’ve got hard drives with tens’ of thousands of digital images of the girls so pretty much every step of their growth has been documented. I wonder if any moment in their lives won’t have a digital image to mark the occasion
In the seventies during the era of the photo mat and cartridge film cameras we generally only took photos at Christmas and during our holidays to the Island. Many years when we finally paid to have the film developed we’d see two Christmas turkeys and a bunch of fish all in the same envelope full of prints. The only other people I could even hope to share this recollection with that may have the same emotional connection to this dirty old dock are now dead. They are just the moving images of friendly faces smiling at me during my flashback. Even if they were alive that still doesn’t mean this location meant anything to them other then a place we went fishing. It’s a precious moment from my youth but it might have meant very little to them. With all the photo’s I have in my possession it’s the ones only I have access too that are the most precious. It’s a bit sad to think when we eventually die all these thoughts and memories go with us. I wonder if someone could develop a Turing like test that was able to transfer the emotion a personal memory triggers to another person. Maybe someone will invent this in my lifetime. I guess I’m doing the next best thing trying to transfer this memory to you who read this but it’s not quite the same as having been there yourself. If you’ve never been to this Island in Northern Ontario it really won’t mean so much with no shared experience of a place. I guess that’s why when you share a memory of a popular destination with someone else who’s visited the same place as well there is an instant connection. We might both be sharing thoughts about a place but we were never there at the same time so it’s just the location you’re reflecting on not the shared experiences of the place and what it meant to you. Each person has their own memory they just happened to be at the same spot on earth.
I’ve tried to share this place with many of the people I care about in my life by bringing them to the Island to experience it for themselves. I’d like to think it left a mark on their memory but it’s probably nothing like my own memory of the place. Even though I haven’t been there myself in over 20 years, four people I’d still like to share Manitoulin with are of course my kids. I hope to one-day take them and I hope they’ll soak up a bit of the magic that truly transformed their father’s life. After spending all my formative years vacationing in this place with my family for the better part of two decades it will always hold a dear place in my heart. It also apparently has a lighting connection to my brain when the correct nose trigger sets off a flood of memories. Somehow I’m sure it will be the same bored yawns from the back seats we heard last summer when we took the time to tour the girls through both their mother and my hometowns. Because they’d spent no time there it meant nothing to them and they weren’t at all interested in hearing stories about their parents youth. They perked up a bit when locations connected to the people they were named for came to light but even that was fleeting. I guess I won’t know for decades how the girls perceive their surroundings and if certain sights or smells trigger fond memories. I’m not sure what social media will look like or what plans Google has for connecting all data in our lives may look like so maybe all memories will have an image. I guess once they get cameras installed in everyone’s eyes then everything we see will be accessible.
Till that time arrives I’ll just marvel at the power of the human brain and it’s ability to blind side you with a trip down memory lane you had no intention of taking. Especially when I’m already in the middle of a bike ride. Maybe I’m going to have to call that unnamed trail on my ride “memory lane” because it certainly fits.