How Are Your Camels

A memorable exchange from John McPhee's book The Survival of the Bark Canoe:

... Henri Vaillancourt once had a dead bear in his room at college. This emerges as we move north on the northernmost arm of Chesuncook Lake. Between the canoes, idle conversation is for us what the chansons were for the voyageurs. Up at six, we have been on the water since seven-forty-five. The wind has not yet come up for the day. The canoes tend to separate. One or the other moves wide or falls behind. The gap extends until it reaches a kind of psychological apogee, at which moment binding forces begin to apply, and the two canoes–alone on hundreds of acres of water–draw slowly together until they all but touch.

Rick Blanchette says to Henri, when the gap is narrow, "So. How are you?"

"Fine. How are you? Still working down at the plastics shop?"

"Yes. Still building canoes?"


"How are the wife and kids?" Henri has no wife and kids.

"Fine. How are your wife and kids?"

Rick has none, either, but this ritual occurs at least twice a day.

I have told them they sound like Kordofan Arabs, who say to one another:

"God bless you."

"How is your health?"

"Thanks be to God, well."

"God bless you."

"How are your camels?"

"Thanks be to God, well. How are your camels?"

"Thanks be to God, well. How are your cattle?"

"Thanks be to God, well." And so on through any living thing in sight or mind.

And now Henri says to Rick, "How are your camels?"

And Rick says, "Thanks be to God, well. How are your cattle?"

And–to put a stop to it–I say, "God bless you. How is your dead bear?"

Henri explains that it was a cub and did not take up much space in the room.

"A cub! Warren Elmer says, and his paddle stops. ...

^z - 2022-05-29