What It Is to Scale the Heights

Putting genteel Georgia behind us, we angle across rural northern Florida to the Gulf Coast and hang a right. And then we drive. And drive.

Most of those two days in early January is spent on the who-knew-it-was-so-wide Florida panhandle, an on-the-face-of-it ridiculous allocation of coastline that undoubtedly reflects some fascinating history of which we are, as Canadians, completely ignorant. To support the underdog, on the second day we stop for lunch somewhere in the don’t-sneeze-or-you’ll-miss-it bit of Alabama that borders the Gulf of Mexico. And then we drive. And drive.  

Fetching up in Biloxi, Mississippi late in the afternoon, we lever ourselves out of the car at the tourist bureau, working hard not to grunt. I mean, we have some pride.

In search of local orientation, the Big Guy heads inside. In search of local colour, er, color, I head over to a statue. The plaque informs me about a French explorer, Pierre LeMoyne Sieur d’Iberville, whose “landing on the Biloxi peninsula in 1699 began the colonization of the Mississippi Coast and the Louisiana Territory.”

 

Statue of d'Iberville in Biloxi, Mississippi

Statue of d’Iberville in Biloxi, Mississippi

Plaque dedicating d'Iberville statue in Biloxi, Mississippi

Plaque on d’Iberville Statue

But it’s not d’Iberville’s planting of the flag hereabouts for Louis XIV that catches my attention, it’s his characterization on the plaque as “Canada’s first hero.”

Imagine my surprise. Completely ignorant of this fascinating bit of what purports to be my own history, I did not know that d’Iberville was Canada’s first hero.

As I wander into the tourist bureau in search of the Big Guy, I realize that I did not know that an explorer could be a hero. Indeed, I realize that I don’t know what a hero is, beyond some vague notion of someone who risks their life to save another. Once again, a specific incident has morphed into a general problem. Imagine my chagrin.

But when we’re settled into our Phoenix digs a few weeks later, it’s Google to the rescue once again. First, I filter out the search results inapplicable to this quest: the culinary one (hero sandwiches) and the classical one (Hero, who was Aphrodite’s priestess and Leander’s sweetie, and no, I didn’t look up any of those because one must retain focus). But there remain ample kinds of heroes to consider.

There’s the mythical or legendary hero: superhuman, semi-divine, that sort of thing. I think of Gilgamesh and Achilles.

There’s the folkloric hero, some of whom have their own theme song. I think of Robin Hood and Johnny Appleseed.

There’s the literary hero: the main (and mainly admirable) male character in a play, story, novel, or comic book, and with whom we’re supposed to empathize or sympathize. I think of Ulysses and Batman and everyone in-between.

Moving into the real world, there’s the physically courageous hero: someone who puts themselves at risk to save or protect another. Civilian life gives us police officers, firemen, and intrepid passersby as heroes; combat gives us war heroes. I think of Billy Bishop, and of wounded or killed soldiers and police officers whose names I don’t remember.

There’s the morally courageous hero: someone who stands up to power, risking retribution for doing what they see as right. I think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

There’s the idolized hero: an enactor of great feats or achievements, whether in sport, exploration, politics, or intellectual pursuits. I think of Roger Bannister, Edmund Hillary, Winston Churchill, and Stephen Hawking. Others might think of Tiger Woods and Steve Jobs.

And here’s where Google stops, but inertia carries me along.

There’s what I call the hybrid hero: those whose feats require physical or moral courage, or both. I think of Shackleton and Terry Fox.

There’s the national hero: men whose exploits play a pivotal role in developing a nation’s identity. Having just travelled across Texas, I think of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

And (not finally, I’m sure, but one must stop somewhere), there’s the unsung hero: one who labours not in vain, but in obscurity.

“So you know what it is to scale the heights and fall, just short of fame,
and have not one in ten thousand know your name.”
MacDonnell on the Heights, by Stan Rogers

So maybe d’Iberville was a hero: I mean, there are lots of ways for him to qualify. I feel I’m on firmer ground in denying him the status of first hero of Canada, which did not exist as a country until 161 years after his death. Some statute of limitations must apply.

Not that I actually have another candidate in mind for that “first hero.”

It isn’t that I don’t know some of the names that played a role in Canada’s development. On the military front I know of Wolfe and Montcalm, 50 years after d’Iberville. On the political front I can pull up Macdonald and Cartier, another 100 years on.

No, it’s that even when I can name them, I don’t think of them as heroes. And of the other Canadian luminaries at the time of Confederation—scientists, intellectuals, explorers, doers of brave deeds—I have no idea. Even in more recent history, I have an uneasy feeling I could name more American or British notables than Canadian ones.

Maybe not identifying national heroes is admirable modesty. Or maybe it’s a lamentable failure to celebrate the scaling of heights, whatever they are and wherever they are found.

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6 Comments

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6 Responses to What It Is to Scale the Heights

  1. John Whitman

    Isabel:
    As usual, I have a different slant on things, i.e. one person’s hero can be another person’s war criminal.
    D’Iberville is certainly not considered a hero in Newfoundland and the following excerpt from his biography explains why. In 1696 d’Iberville “….then sailed east to Placentia, the French capital of Newfoundland, and began the Avalon Peninsula Campaign on 1 November. On this expedition he captured St. John’s and ruined most of the English fishing villages. During four months of raids, Iberville was responsible for the destruction of 36 settlements. The Newfoundland campaign was one of the cruelest and most destructive of Iberville’s career.”
    Lest you think I am totally immersed in arcane facts from Canadian military history, the only reason I was aware of this was because of a Letter to the Editor in the Ottawa Citizen from a very irate Newfoundlander back when it was announced that a statue of d’Iberville would be included in the collection of statues for other Canadian “heroes” next to the War Memorial in Ottawa. As I remember it, that letter also made mention of ethnic cleansing.
    John W

    • Isabel Gibson

      John – There, now, if I had Googled “d’Iberville” instead of “hero,” a different blog would have emerged. The French can keep him, says me, hero or war criminal. Mind you, I have a similar view of the War of 1812 – for me, it’s too much earlier than Confederation to count as “our” history, even though it happened, in part, on what later became our territory.

      • John Whitman

        Isabel:
        I understand your chronological point about the War of 1812, but since I had a Great-great-great-great-uncle (Captain Charles Percy Bailey) killed at the Battle of Chippawa helping to keep those American invaders at bay, I tend to think of it very much as a Canadian war.
        John W

        • Isabel Gibson

          John – And that makes sense from your perspective. My grandparents arrived in this country (just) more than a century after that war, so for me there’s no family connection to compensate for the thread that seems to be based more on geography than a political reality. In the USA, I’ve seen the War of 1812 touted as part of their (ongoing) (family) war against the British!

  2. Jim Taylor

    I’d have to offer my own definition of “hero” — other people’s definitions always seem to omit some crucial factor! A hero is someone you look up to. Literally, then, a hero is someone who can be put on a pedestal, whose feet (perhaps of clay) come at about your eye level. What they did is almost immaterial — it’s their effect on me that makes them heroic. I wish I could emulate them. I wish I had the courage of a Gandhi, the persistence of a Terry Fox, the wisdom of a Hammarskojld….
    Was d’Iberville a hero? Were Radisson and Grossalier? MacKenzie? Fraser? For sheer bloody-minded drive, refusal to give in, perhaps. But as I age, I feel less and less urge to emulate their achievements. So I think that for me at least they have faded out of hero status.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim T – “Less drive to emulate their achievements” – yes, I get that effect of aging! Any chance, though, that we can continue to want to emulate the quality that let them get things done? Or does age also bring more humility about the often ambiguous effects of our actions, so that the ambition to accomplish virtually anything fades away into the night, leaving only a nostalgia for the heroes of our youth? I’d like to be able to admire notables for what they did, to be inspired by it maybe, while simultaneously acknowledging both the feet of clay and the reality of unintended consequences. A tall order, perhaps.