Gaps in history and geography: Of gangly birds, lost waterways, forgotten massacres, rock formations and 17th-century moose antler combs

Manjith Kainickara at ml.wikipedia

Manjith Kainickara at ml.wikipedia

(This post discusses books by Candace Savage, Dilys Leman and Fred Stenson.)

Since we moved to Toronto two and a half years ago, I’ve been drawn more and more to what we urban folk have been conditioned to call “green space”: the woods of nearby High Park, the trails along the Humber River, the parks along the lakeshore. It’s possible that growing older makes me more desperate for the nourishment of the natural world, which some research has shown actually bolsters cognition and well-being. [See this Globe and Mail article from 2012: “Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”] A lifetime in built-up environments can leave a body parched for the flash of a blood-red cardinal in thick greenery, for the optimistic calls of chickadees, for that barebones x-ray view right into the heart of the forest that winter allows. These days, I take any chance I can to venture into a lingering pocket or reminder of the wilderness that’s been tamed, used up, paved over and all-but obliterated by this smoggy, gridlocked, teeming, loveable city I call home.

A few years ago, I couldn’t tell a chickadee from a house sparrow. I had no idea that cardinals love to eat the sumac’s red fruit in winter, and that this diet is partly what gives them their intense colour—nor that the female cardinal is a dignified, muted brown, with a tuft of bright red feathers atop her head: she’s serious yet playful, mature with a whiff of youth. She reminds me of some of my best friends, women in midlife (or later) who embody a winning combination of hard-won wisdom, defiance, self-deprecation and wit. This stunning lady cardinal knows her worth, and how not to take it too seriously. I’m learning slowly and deliberately, gathering an ability to associate more directly and personally with the world—not the constructed world of humans but the world itself—a skill that, in ages past, most children learned incidentally (in many places they still do).

Basic facts, those I can retain, serve as both decoders and touchstones. Willows like water. Grey squirrels can actually be black, reddish-brown or even white; the true red squirrel is smaller, with a less bushy tail, and more rare around here. Oaks come in several varieties that can be distinguished by the shape of their leaves, the size and colour of their acorns, the texture of their bark. Starlings like to gather in crowds, in the tree tops. If you see a compact little bird skittering down a trunk, beak-first, it’s likely a nuthatch. Those slender, gawky, snow-white birds that tiptoe in the river shallows are egrets, an apt name for a bird that combines awkwardness and grace in such a beguiling way. It’s unofficially okay to harvest as much garlic mustard as you wish from Toronto’s High Park—it’s great in a soup—because this hardy plant is invasive, choking out native species such as trilliums. Teams of volunteers, called “stewards,” give over their Sunday mornings to digging up such undesirables, and seeding native plants in the loose soil left behind. (There exists among naturalists and ecologists and biologists a heated debate about this hands-on approach to native versus so-called invasive species that is too complex to get into here.)

All this forms part of a late education for me—one heavily facilitated by the not-for-profit High Park Nature Centre and its knowledgeable and enthusiastic family programs coordinator, Jon Hayes—and what sticks is random and piecemeal. I might recognize a leaf or a bird that was identified for me just yesterday; I might not. I might remember that the tall reed topped by what looks like a shortened horsetail, a pollution-tolerant invasive squeezing out the cattails of Grenadier Pond, is called phragmites (frag-my-tis), but that’s only because I’ve managed to associate it with the 1980s children’s show “Fraggle Rock,” which my younger sister loved and which starred a cast of gangly, mop-haired muppets.

In part due to the good work done by the local organization Lost Rivers Walks, I’ve also become keenly aware that any densely urban environment is home to hidden, lost or literally buried waterways. The slopes and hills of my chock-a-block neighbourhood streets represent the valleys and riverbanks that once teemed with vegetation and wildlife; the Don River in the east end of the city once meandered snakelike down the valley through which it’s now directed in a straight line through a brick and concrete-lined channel.

I’m grasping for a lost language and a nearly invisible geography, the remnants of which I wander through daily, running errands, exploring with my son, hurrying to appointments. I’m after the history tied to all these changes, which of course involves the people who thrived in that wilder landscape, before European explorers, early settlers, and all the industry and later immigrants that followed. The streets around High Park have names such as Indian Grove, Indian Road, Indian Crescent. There are tales of a lost First Nations burial ground in the park, and on the cliff above the Humber, in the neighbourhood now known as Baby Point, the Iroquoian village of Teiaiagon was home to a Seneca longhouse community during the 17th Century, thought to boast a population of 5,000. The burials of two Seneca women were uncovered here around the closing of the 20th Century, during installation of a natural gas line. The graves were dated to the 1680s, and the women were buried with combs carved from moose antlers, one of them depicting a First Nations figure clad in European-style clothes, the other a human figure, bear and rattle-snake-tailed panther, a possible representation of Mishipizheu, the water lynx. It also looks like a depiction of transformation from life to life, form to form, an appropriate symbol to take down into the grave.

It’s unclear what happened to these communities, except that around the time these women were buried, the village, which was ideally situated for control of traffic along the all-important Toronto Carrying Place (a portage route from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe) was abandoned. It’s telling, with regards to our faith in recorded history, that the graves are variously reported to have been discovered in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2007. Mohawk community member Haleigh Fox writes on FirstStoryTO, a blog dedicated to sharing the Aboriginal history of Toronto, that the locals may have moved on naturally (“Haudenosaunee villages are not meant to be permanent”) or returned to their New York homelands under duress, due to military threat from the Marquis de Denonville, Governor General of New France. Other articles I found contend Denonville actually destroyed the village. There’s also a recorded tale of a supposed three-day drunk at the village during the 1670s involving French brandy and every man, woman and child, during which two women were stabbed (the source is early Toronto historian Percy Robinson, but from my thus-far cursory studies I know little about his sources or their veracity). Prior to the Seneca, the location was inhabited by Huron-Wendat, who, Fox writes, may have “dispersed due to a combination of warfare, disease, and starvation brought on by inter-Indigenous and European conflict.” With few historical records and archeological clues to go on, Fox is pretty much covering all the bases.

In years past I would have noticed such markers and bits of history (and missing or conflicting history) in passing, without much thought. I’d have walked the steeply sloping Glenlake Road, which I descend after dropping my son at daycare, without thinking that it may once have led down to a pond teeming with cattails, ducks and fish. Now I want and need this more basic knowledge of things that precede us, or that persist despite us: I want to know what I’ve missed, what we’ve forgotten or are in danger of forgetting, the stories and memories and former ways of life connected with the spaces I inhabit.

Filling gaps, reclaiming lost or obscured history. This kind of impulse is in the air these days. To me, it feels more and more like an imperative. Or a compulsion. A necessary step in redressing the darker aspects of Canadian history, and possibly also a necessary step toward regaining respect—and with that comes a measure of awe—for the ailing world that sustains us. Three books, one nonfiction, one poetry, and one fiction, went a long way toward nudging me forward in this direction last year.

from the Alberta Geological Survey

from the Alberta Geological Survey

To follow the stone circles where they lead

In her heart-wrenching, myth-buster of a book, A Geography of Bood: Unearthing the Memory of a Prairie Landscape, which was published in 2012 and won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, Candace Savage collects and presents the counter-story to the “brave pioneers in the wilderness” history of Canada we’ve been fed since elementary school. There is truth in that old familiar history, sure, but there is more to it, so much more, and some of that has to do with the near-decimation of the plains buffalo—which was no mystery or act of God but a full-on, no-holds-barred, textbook unsustainable harvest—and the attendant near-decimation of various groups of plains First Nations, the latter of which involved broken treaties, massacres and intentional starving-out strategies.

Savage stumbles on such tragedies as the Hunger Camp at Cypress Lake in the early 1880s while escaping into the prairies, her childhood home, on holidays with her husband. Because she is curious about anything to which she’s drawn, she starts following her nose, looking into such phenomena as mysterious ancient tipi rings, asking questions. A Geography of Blood is born out of this appreciative looking, which first transforms into research, then into discovery (not happy discovery) over and over again. It becomes a painful exposé of a stain on Canada’s past, but it’s also a love story between a woman and the land, between human and geography, and a simple commitment to face up. “All I wanted to know,” writes Savage, “was who had made the stone circles, and yet here I am instead, surrounded by desperation and the nameless bodies of the dead. Yet if these memories are part of my inheritance as a prairie person, I am determined to accept them as my own. I will let them settle around me quietly, layer after layer, loss upon loss.”

It sounds passive, but this kind of work takes willingness, stamina and guts. What difference does it make? Who cares about this stuff, from so long ago, that’s mostly forgotten? I do! Savage calls, raising her hand. Standing to her full height, looking us straight in the eye. And maybe you should, too. Savage would have had to hold this defiant, uncomfortable posture for years, while continuing to follow her nose toward ever more unpleasant realities, before presenting us with this book and the honest, hardscrabble journey toward some semblance of truth that it relates. It takes time and determination to hunt through obscure museums and archives for unofficial but very real histories—it takes the existence of obscure museums and archives. It takes a willingness to accept implication. We are implicated by where and how we live today, how our own position in Canadian society—where we are nearly all immigrants or the progeny of immigrants—has come to pass. More to the point, we are implicated simply by being human and thereby capable, in some hidden corner of all ourselves, of committing or condoning or turning away from the very atrocities Savage doggedly, obediently unearths—surprise!—from under generations of denial and indifference and dust.

Cypress Hills

Cypress Hills

Cypress Hills Recipes

Dilys Leman’s 2014 poetry collection, The Winter Count, crosses time and space with Savage’s book: we’re on the prairies in the late 19th Century, when the buffalo (technically bison) are failing, tensions between hungry First Nations and Europeans (de facto ruled by the Hudson’s Bay Company) are high, and our nascent federal government has growing designs on the land, and the means (and will) to get what it wants. By bringing historical characters to light—by giving them voice through their own letters and through imagined inner monologues—Leman also challenges the more commonly known versions of Canadian history, which come to feel sanitized, and blindly patriotic. The impetus for her investigations was not geography but blood ties: her great-great-grandfather, Augustus Jukes, was a senior surgeon with the North-West Mounted Police assigned to the medical commission assessing the sanity of Louis Riel during his incarceration—an assessment that would determine whether Riel was put to death for treason. Dr. Jukes was also a thinker and a poet. He left letters and records that called and called to Leman, three generations on.

Researching Jukes’s papers, as well as the context and times in which he lived and worked, led Leman to a tour of horrors similar to Savage’s, and to an understanding of the role the federal government’s policies and deliberate mythmaking played in the notions that First Nations were a rising threat to nation-building—a strategy with implications and reverberations that continue to this day. Leman’s poems, like Savage’s prose, are wrenching but not wholly despairing. That’s because they’re simultaneously subversive and inventive, angry and elegant, sorrowful and sinuous, horrific and funny. By recasting actual letters and documents, by imagining the inner monologues of historical characters—with her gruesome “Cypress Hills Recipes and lines from “Big Bear’s Speech,” with her “How to Hang Eight Indians (at Once) at Battleford” and her “Notes on Band Behaviour During Rebellion,” with her “Rules for Polite Tea” and her notes on the “Lunacy Commission”—by building a rich, polyphonic chorus of testimony, Leman stages a reenactment of that lost, shameful past. In doing so she also offers us a glimpse of a way (painful but possible) through it.

Fort Edmonton, 1910, By The Library of Congress (Bain News Service) (Flickr) [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fort Edmonton, 1910, By The Library of Congress (Bain News Service) (Flickr) [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So you think you know what the fur trade was all about?

Now a touch further back in time, to Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade: a gripping and often hilarious (and horrendous) wild west romp that takes us to the Bow River, Fort Edmonton, Fort Vancouver, Fort Assiniboine, Piegan Post, Fort Carlton and York Factory on Hudson Bay through the reign of the Hudson’s Bay Company during through the first half of the 1800s. Stenson isn’t out to glorify the fur traders or to sanctify the First Nations they traded with—there is, for example, no breathless homage to the coureurs de bois such as I recall from Canadian history class—but to immerse us in that hubristic economic empire of the Company, which ran like a dictatorship, and let us see and feel its fallout: the alliances and connections formed and broken (some military, some mercenary, some in the form of marriage), the missionary work facilitated (for better or worse), the damage wrought to creatures and land, the egos supported, the tensions and misunderstandings, the lure, the cost. In short, the humanity.

Stenson’s story, aside from being a great read, a colourful page-turner filled with cruelty and compassion and killer dialogue, is a reminder that history is made up of people, that the play of money and power is dangerous and far-reaching, that every event we learn about in a textbook might have happened differently, or not at all, given another mood, moment, happenstance, person in charge or kind of weather. It’s a reminder of the history beneath history, which can be partly filled in with research and facts, but must always, in some measure—because it’s driven by human beings, whose thoughts and motivations belong wholly to themselves, yet may not be wholly or even partially understood by themselves—be imagined.

By User:Kclama (Own work) Wikimedia Commons.

By User:Kclama (Own work) Wikimedia Commons.

What did the egret see?

There is a big picture and there are the individual lives within it. Redemption and its first cousins, awareness and understanding, can only ever move piecemeal through the scene, soul by soul, waving their little flags. Sometimes, some of us see them beckoning. Sometimes none of us do. Sometimes one of us is compelled to raise our own ragged bit of cloth against the official story, against the only version easily and widely accessible to common memory.

I don’t know where my newfound love of egrets and female cardinals will lead, nor my belated awareness of hidden waterways and ghost First Nations villages. But one thing I know. Walking through my neighbourhood, I can feel that my eyes are more open than they used to be. That is not a metaphor: they literally feel more wide open. When I see the contours of a road, I now see more than the contours of a road. I see invisible creek beds, boulders, leaning willows with beaver-gnawed trunks. When I see a tidy, compact, rock-enclosed garden on the tip of the ravine, I also see a corn field that may once have been cultivated here. I see a tangle of herbs that a woman three hundred years before my time would have assessed with a practiced eye: her living pharmacy. The child on her back ails from some mysterious illness that arrived with the newcomers. The exquisite moose antler comb is tucked into her hair, keeping the strands back from her face, as she bends to collect greens and roots that represent hope. Way down the ravine, beyond the high flat lands where the corn and squash grow in rows, down there in the river shallows, an egret (much like the one I saw yesterday) stands stock still, its thin neck curled like a rope. It has spotted a fish…

This scene, built around the barest of facts, doesn’t seem like anything concrete. But it’s made of actual stuff, some of which constitutes my own attempts to see and understand, and some of which is real: little clues; sediment, residue. Layers. Layers that have always existed, that I never used to wonder about, or bother trying to see.

One of the alchemic qualities of Savage’s book is her belief—and the extension of that belief to her reader—that history lives on in the places where it happened, in the rocks and the soil and the trees, in the very air. She tells how she came to love visiting Ravenscrag, about 14 miles west of her home-away-from-home, Eastend, Saskatchewan. In between the two was a valley she describes as a “broad-floored, walled-in trench” from where “steep, dissected cutbanks rise to clip the horizon, enclosing a river of sky.” She writes that the embankments are ever-changing, “sometimes towering and majestic, sometimes hazy and withdrawn, sometimes outlined with snow so that their bones show.” Can you feel her love of this place, the permission she allows herself to wallow in beauty even when it comes bearing shadows? Maybe especially then?

The real wonder of this place, Savage learns, is what’s missing. She finds a geological guide book to the area that describes an “unconformity” at the top of the cliffs, a missing layer of sediment that amounts to a thousand metres of soil, or “the erasure of thirty million years.” Savage looks hard through binoculars and begins to see a “coarse jumble of stones” that, in some places, is absent. In its place lies far more recent debris and silt, left by receding glaciers. “Yet to an unschooled eye, nothing looked amiss; one layer overlaid another in complete innocence. Apparently, an unconformity could exist between the present and what we knew of the past, and very few of us would ever notice it.”

Few of us would notice, but it would be there.