The story of Hope Ness

IMG_0186Oh, if only these rocks could talk, what a story they could tell about how they got here thousands of years ago. They were part of what’s now called the Canadian Shield, a primeval formation of igneous rock, forged over many millions of years. When the vast glaciers of the last ice age began their slow, relentless march south, these rocks were broken off the shield and pushed south by the immense power of the ice. So great was the weight of the ice, several kilometers thick, that it tilted the eastern edge of an ancient sedimentary rock seabed upward, thus creating the unique, cliff-edge rock formation we call the Niagara Escarpment. When the ice age waned, and the ice began to melt and retreat, these rocks were left right here, where you see them now, on the section of the Bruce Trail from Hope Ness to Hope Bay, on the Bruce Peninsula. Hope Ness is the name settlers gave the promontory of land that reaches out into, and protects Hope Bay, which is part of much larger Georgian Bay. It in turn is part of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes. Those are all names with a relatively brief history so far. The indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before the “age of contact” with people of European descent had their own names, including for Hope Ness. I find it interesting, and comforting in a way, that in researching the Indigenous history of the area, the nearby Chippewas of Nawash First Nation have found it was regarded as a “place of healing,” a hopeful place where people came from far and wide.

I’ve certainly come to realize that’s why I’m here, and why I feel strongly the need to share this special place, especially with those who are in need of hope. Perhaps in times to come Hope Ness will have another similar name, or a renewed and restored one, expressing that same spirit.

Hope Ness was almost destroyed about 50 years ago when the Dow Chemical Company wanted to develop a huge quarry to mine the limestone bedrock for its rich magnesium content. The plan included a large shipping facility at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment at nearby Hope Bay. The plan did not proceed. But in the meantime Dow had acquired a large interest in most of the land, which the Ontario government ended up owning, and still does. It includes the provincial Hope Bay Nature Reserve which surrounds my homestead on all sides. More details of the story of how that happened, and other aspects of the history and continuing existence of a special place can be found here, in Finding Hope Ness. Welcome.

 

The Awakening: Kate Chopin’s still thought-provoking novel

My recent discovery of the creative, literary works of late 19th Century, American author Kate Chopin, most notably her novel, The Awakening, has been a deeply moving and continuously thought-provoking experience. That meets one of the important criteria for a true work of art; and so does speaking so well to readers about what they may be experiencing, as they struggle to find themselves.

It wasn’t only for my own sake, but more especially for my maternal grandmother, Clara, whose tragic life I was reminded of as I read The Awakening and continue to think about it every day. Kate Chopin would have understood perfectly what happened to my grandmother; and would have felt for her. Maybe she is, right now, somewhere, somehow. It may sound strange, but I find consolation for my grandmother’s sake in such thoughts, thanks to Chopin

As a young woman of 28, and mother of two children she dearly loved, my grandmother was desperately unhappy and neglected in her marriage when she dared to fall in love with a married man, famous at the time, 100 years ago. But despite loving her too, he could not face the prospect of living openly in their love, and the consequences it was certain to have for him in the emotionally repressive, post-puritanical, societal norms of the time. That was especially true in the narrow-minded, provincial confines of WASPish (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant), Toronto “the Good” where she lived, or tried to. And it was also true of the U.S. Midwest where he was a church pastor, and a prominent figure in the progressive, social gospel movement.

As it was, the consequences of being a married woman who fell in love with a married man were terrible: a broken heart, the court-ordered loss of her first two children, her desperate abandonment of her love child, my mother, her lonely misery and abject poverty in Montreal for 18 years, and her death from cancer at an early age after her sudden return, alone, to her parental home in Toronto in 1942..

Kate Chopin

In The Awakening, Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, raised ‘American’ in Kentucky, is married to Leonce Pontellier, a wealthy member of upper-class, Creole society in Louisiana. She and her husband live in New Orleans, the focal point of the unique, French-based Acadian culture. He’s often away to the north, including New York City and Wall Street, as the story unfolds. Though apparently doting, he cares most about the material trappings of wealth, including what today would be called his ‘trophy wife.’ But she dares to question and ultimately rebel against all that. They have two young children; but Edna rejects the prevailing, social attitude that a woman should always sacrifice her needs for the sake of her children; ‘unessential things,’ yes, but not the soul of her being, as she struggles to discover what that is. She falls in love with a young man who, among other things, teachers her how to swim. That is a crucial, beginning point in her journey of self-discovery, including the awakening of her repressed sensuality. It continues through to the end of the unconsummated relationship with her ‘lover’ who abandons her, “because I love you,” he says in a parting note. Soon after that comes the final and still controversial ending of the novel when Edna, naked and alone on a beach, walks into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand,” she thinks, as she swims out as far as she can before exhaustion sets in. She had by then already rejected the possibility of other, passing lovers. She thinks fondly of her two young boys, left, apparently happy, in the care of their paternal grandmother in the countryside. But she affirms again her unwillingness to sacrifice herself and live for their sake only.

I confess to being troubled by how Chopin handles that important issue in The Awakening. It needs more attention. A key character in the novel, a happily married woman, tells Edna more than once to not give her children short shrift: “The children, the children!” she says. How Chopin’s heroine may have struggled with that begs for more creative exploration, especially when her two young sons are ultimately described in her apparently final thoughts as ‘antagonists’ seeking to control her life. It’s not hard to imagine how outrageous that must have seemed to many readers at the time, in a society where the role of woman was so locked-in to motherhood.

Speaking personally, being similarly ‘farmed out’ twice by a loving, well-intentioned, single mother to pseudo-foster parents – unloving and abusive in one case – was a deeply troubling experience. I still struggle with it. There are other cultures in the world that have a more natural, realistic approach to parenting than one that puts all the pressure and responsibility on individual mothers: such things as a greater, shared reliance on both parents, the extended family, and the social group. There are many examples, even in the animal world.

A shallow, perhaps too-obvious interpretation of the ending of The Awakening assumes Edna’s suicide. The last the reader sees of her she has gone as far as she can out into the waters of the Gulf, with no strength left to make it back to shore. But Chopin, deliberately, I think, leaves her fate uncertain. Meanwhile, recollections of childhood memories, including walking through a “blue-grass meadow” with “no beginning and no end” come to Edna’s mind.

I am left with this thought: that Edna’s journey, her ‘Awakening,’ reaches its consummating climax, its ultimate expression of her sensuality-come-alive, in and with the sea. I might have said best would have been to go on living, in some state of love, in the world. But, in all the circumstances, Edna had realized that was not possible, that it could only lead to personal tragedy. Meanwhile, that moment in and with the sea, is love, timeless and complete.

It’s also a testament to Chopin’s literary genius: to have written such a powerful scene in such a book on such a theme, in 1899, in the U.S. Midwest.  

And yet, what an injustice, that The Awakening was widely condemned after its publication. Chopin was shunned in the St. Louis, Missouri community where she lived at the time. She had been born there, but married a Creole man herself, moved to Louisiana, and had six children. She, with her children, moved back to St. Louis after her husband died to look after her sick mother. She began writing in the 1890s as a way of overcoming depression after her mother died, and soon made a name for herself as a regional (Acadian) writer. But after the bad reaction to The Awakening, her further works were largely rejected. She died five years later and was virtually forgotten for 70 years. Now she is a regarded as a forerunner of the modern feminist movement. The Awakening and her short stories are required reading in literary studies.

But with all due respect to feminism, that categorizes and thus still diminishes her. Kate Chopin speaks of the human spirit in all its wonderful, though often tragic, complexity.

My granddaughter Asia at the lookout. May you see your way clear, my dear.

“Can you take me home?”

(Author’s note: This is a chapter from a work in progress, about an very old man who undertakes an extraordinary journey home to the pioneer farm where he was born, and lived, until a tragic series of events happened that left him with a terrible burden of guilt he carried for the rest of his troubled life. By going home, to kneel at his little sister’s grave, he hopes to be with her again, and find forgiveness before he dies. Under ‘categories’ to the right, click on ‘1908’ for earlier chapters.)

The two men, one very old and the other young, who walked the trail through the forest were not alone. They were watched, or felt, by all manner of things, seen and unseen, from the highest branches of the forest canopy, to the forest floor where spring flowers bloomed in the streams of sunlight still reaching the ground. The placement of the flowers charted the passage of the sun from dawn to dusk. It was still early in the season. The annual, renewed growth of the spring, hardwood-tree canopy was not quite complete. A few more days of sun and warmth and it would be. But in the meantime, the forest-floor flowers, clouds of them, flourished in the precious sunlight.

In the soil between the rocky outcrops vast networks of fungal growth sent excited messages to the trees as footsteps approached and passed.

And so, the forest was alerted; it felt and tracked the two men as they walked. The forest knew them both and settled down quietly to watch and listen. Occasionally the young man offered his arm to the much older man for support when they came to a steeper slope on the trail where jagged rocks protruded. Otherwise, they walked quietly side by side, listening.

“Feels like we’re not alone in these woods,” the old man said. “like we’re being watched by many eyes.”

The young man stopped, turning to face the old man. His expression, his eyes, said many things: a little surprise, interest, curiosity, and some reluctance to respond. He wanted to take a moment to be sure the old man really knew what he was saying. Or was it just a few casual words, mere conversation to fill the momentary silence?

“Yes, the forest spirits, and the spirits of others who walked this trail a long time ago. And before time,” the young man said, matter-of-factly, not because it wasn’t special — it was — but because it was a given, a truth beyond speculation. “We are approaching a special place where many others came, often from very far away to heal.”

“And to die,” the old man said, taking in a deep breath as they stood on the trail.

“Yes. What you call Hope Ness we have another name that speaks of it, the spirit that has always been here, and still is, as you can tell. The lookout is an important part of that. It was the place where they stood to look out over the water, to see where they had come from, and where they were going. It’s not far now,” said the young man, whose name, given to him at birth, was Peter. “Just down there, to the right.”

“I’m remembering it well now,” said the old man, “though the forest has changed so much since then. Just a little way, and there’s a trail that goes up the ridge. Even then, it still showed signs of being well-travelled. I went there often as a boy. I always expected to find someone there on my walks. But I never did.”

“They probably saw you first,” Peter said. “By that time, we were made to feel unwelcome, and worse, like we had no right to be here, and not just here but anywhere in the territory that had been our home. But we did have a right to be here, and not just a treaty right to hunt and gather on our traditional lands, even as the land was opened for sale to settlers. It was still ours, and so it remains. I think you can see that: you who are going home to the place where your spirit waits for your return. Others may be there now, there may be new fences. But who can say you have no right to be there, where your family walked, and their bones are buried?

“You’re right Peter. I haven’t thought of that; I guess I just took it for granted.”

“The treaty says the land was given to the Crown in trust, to be surveyed into farm lots and the lots sold on our behalf for our benefit. It says we have a continuing right to be here, to hunt and gather as we always had. In retrospect, even that wording may have imposed misleading limitations; be that as it may, our right to be here was not respected.”

“My father did,” the old man said. “He respected that right, especially about a certain area below the cliffs. He said it was a sacred place, and we should respect that.”

They had started again to walk the rest of the way to the lookout. The old man soon started to feel tired again. The periods of energy allowing him to carry on were becoming shorter.

Earlier, they had stopped to rest for a while after walking through the cottage community of Hope Bay, a short distance from the reserve boundary. The old man remembered that image now. How could that have been right, to draw such a line within which people who had moved freely for thousands of years were expected to remain, and somehow even be content?

They had continued the walk on a road through Hope Bay to a trail around a steep slope up the Niagara Escarpment cliffs. Despite the helping hand, it had taken a lot out of him. He wanted to understand what Peter was telling him, but that was becoming difficult. He had to work hard at it.

“How are you?” asked Peter, seeing the old man’s weariness. “Do you want to stop for a while again, to rest?’

“No, I’ll be alright,” the old man had said, for the sake of his manly pride. He was regretting it now. But the conversation, while using up some of what was left of his energy, was also distracting him from his weariness.

“Here, here is the trail to the lookout,” Peter said, pointing up a short, steep, rocky ridge. “Let me take your hand,” he said, stepping ahead of the old man, then reaching down to help him up.

At the top, the side trail levelled off but followed an irregular path to avoid crevices and large, moss-covered boulders left behind thousands of years ago by the retreating glaciers of the ice age. The old man took a few steps, then stopped and carefully put his hand on top of one of the rocks where a tiny garden of fragile plants was growing on a shallow soil of composted leaf-litter.

“I remember this rock,” he said. “It hasn’t changed at all. It became my touchstone, I guess, because I got into the habit of putting my hand on it just like this. And then I always made a wish, or sometimes I prayed.

“Like any boy, I guess, I had started to let my imagination get carried away. I started to imagine I was in the company of giants who welcomed me to sit with them around their fires, share their food, and listen to their stories of great deeds.”

The old man went quiet. He remembered how as a grieving boy he had earlier pledged not to let his imagination fly again, ever. So, he had put those reveries out of his head, discarded them, and all they might have taught him about living. And now, here he was talking to this young man about them, this young man who was far more entitled than he to speak in this forest of such things, and who already knew them better than he ever could.

“You know them, Peter. You are becoming one of them,” the old man said, the words being spoken by his voice surprising him. He shook his head to himself in self-recrimination for again speaking so presumptuously. He didn’t know, and would not have presumed to think, that the forest had chosen him in that moment to speak its truth to this young man.

“Ah, I’m not worthy of flying in their footsteps,” Peter said, with a good-natured smile, to lighten the moment. He was relieved to see the old man had gotten his humorous play on words right away. They laughed heartily. Still, the sooner they got to the lookout and sat down, the better. “Yes, I am tired,” the old man said.

“I’m trying to do the best I can on the path I have chosen,” Peter said. “Some are born to fly. Some are born to walk.”

The lookout came into view, and the great expanse of blue sky beyond. They walked the rest of the way silently. When they reached the edge of the cliff the old man looked down, just as he had done as a boy when he stopped here, on his Sunday walks through the woods so many years ago. When he turned to look at Peter nearby, he could see he was deep in thought. Peter took the old man’s arm again and helped him sit near him on a flat-rock, limestone ledge. He looked at the old man, and then after a few seconds, he told him:

“This is where some of my people found her,” Peter said, “you mother, sitting like this near the edge of the cliff.”

“‘My mother?’” the old man said, his eyes suddenly open wide with surprise. “I … I don’t understand.”

“Yes, your mother,” Peter continued. “They had seen her from a distance as they came along the trail to the lookout. They stopped and were about to turn around, but one of the women kept going. She felt there was something wrong. She said ‘hello’ in English to warn your mother. But she didn’t move. The woman went up beside her and asked her if she needed help. Your mother looked up but said nothing. The woman could tell from the look in her eyes and the expression on her face that she … her spirit, was in great pain. The other people came and together they asked your mother to come with them, away from the cliff. Then your mother spoke: she asked, “can you take me home?” That is the way my mother has told me what happened. And she was told that by her grandmother, your mother,” Peter said.

The old man had said nothing since his first words of surprise. He still couldn’t speak: it was, for the moment, too much to comprehend. Peter continued:

“The woman who had first approached your mother asked where she lived, after your mother asked to be taken home.

“Your mother said, ‘no, I mean, take me home with you. Please.’

“And that’s what they did,” said Peter. “That’s how your mother came to live with us.”

The old man put one hand over his eyes, while steadying himself as he remained seated on the rock ledge near the edge of the cliff with the other. And then the thought occurred to him that his mother in her grief and despair had been right where he was sitting. And then as he looked, the image, as described by Peter, seem to be appearing.

“When was that?” the old man asked Peter.

“It was many years ago. My mother is not sure of the year. But it was maybe a year or two after the big fire. She was still a young girl when your mother told her how she had come back to Hope Ness. But there was no one at the farm anymore. Someone — she didn’t say who — told her your father had died, and you had been taken in by neighbors, but you ran away. No one knew where you went.”

“Your mother’s heart was broken for a long time. But she became part of our community and never wanted to leave. She was a friend. She married a Nawash man and had a child, a daughter, my grandmother.”

“So, my mother is …you are, my mother’s great grandson. Which means …

“Yes, we are family, Peter said.

“There’s more,” he said. “Your mother went to your sister’s grave as often as she could with her Nawash husband and their daughter. But at a certain point it got to be…difficult, even dangerous.

“What happened to her? Where is she now?”

“Your mother died in 1951. She wanted to be buried with your sister?”

“How is, how was that possible?” the old man asked.

“We kept her with us for a time, in our traditional way. But my mother found a way to honor her grandmother’s wishes. She is with your sister,” Peter said.

“We realized yesterday who you were,” he told the old man. “My mother thought you should know. And, of course, you should. But we both had a feeling the time wasn’t right, that it would take too much out of you, the shock of it, and get in the way of what you are doing. But now, here we are, here, where it happened.”

“You saved her life; your people, I mean,” the old man said.

“They came along at the right time,” said Peter. “Your mother wanted to live. That’s who she was, from all I know about her. But I think she also knew you would come home, and here you are.”

“You did the right thing, Peter, you and your mother, to not tell me right away. I don’t have much time left, maybe only just enough. I need to rest soon. I am tired. Nothing to do with what you’ve just said; I could feel it coming along the trail. If anything, what you’ve told me has given me more reason and strength to keep going. Thank you.”

“My friend at the end of the road where the trail goes out of these woods will help you,” said Peter. “Don’t worry. He won’t interfere.”

They left the lookout and went back to the intersection of the two trails. From there the old man was to continue north alone to Hope Ness, while Peter would go south, to return home. That had been the plan. But now, after all that had just been said, it hardly seemed like the right thing to do.

The old man hesitated, not wanting to watch Peter turn and leave, to watch him walking out of sight on the trail while knowing he might never see him again. When he did say finally, “don’t worry, I’ll be alright. I’ll see your friend,” and Peter himself turned reluctantly to walk away, he soon felt like calling out to him to come back. But he didn’t. He watched as Peter, about to disappear up and over a rise in the trail, turned, and raised his right hand in a last gesture of parting. The old man raised his back. Moments later, as he walked alone on the trail into Hope Ness, the old man felt after all he had done the right thing to go on alone. It was what he had to do. He felt comforted by the presence of the forest, telling him it agreed.

“Did you tell him?” Peter’s mother asked when he got home.

“Yes, I did, at the lookout. Later, we both found it hard to go our different ways. The man at the end of the road will watch out for him. He’ll help him. And he’ll let us know when he leaves in the morning. I’d like to be there when he gets home.”

 “I want to go with you.”

“Yes, of course, Oma. I knew you would.”

Speaking of this Brilliant Morning

Speaking plainly of this brilliant morning,

The sun rising in a clear sky,

The lingering snow yearning,

I fancy, for its melting touch,

We walk Cathedral Drive to the rock

Where an “Our Father,” an “Our Mother,”

An “Our Great Mystery,” is said.

Daring to glance at the sun, it is

Entirely obvious why no more

Is permitted. And clear as well

Why the sun would be worshipped:

The giver of life, the rising of daily hope.

But now we are otherwise enlightened.

We know better: the wonder of it

Has been understood to a degree.

And the rest,

Is now just a matter of time.

A joyful sunrise in the woods

There was a profound stillness in the air this sunrise, mid-March morning as we walked to my prayerful touchstone beside Cathedral Drive, the dogs and I, doing what we do every morning of every day.

But this morning was different in its mysterious way, though perhaps only ‘mysterious’ to certain disconnected mortals; otherwise, I think it’s fair to say there is a great cry of joy gathering and stirring in the woods, as the ‘sweet liqueur’ of life, as Chaucer would say, begins to rise with the sun. Under the still-deep, snow cover that remains, an infinite murmuring of countless awakening creatures, small and large. And above the old pasture across the road, the rising sun has conjured up a fine mist that speaks to how precious this moment is.

Buddy and Sophie in their canine way are well aware and join the celebration, as they run about, stopping here and there to savour the deliciously rich, rising plenitude of refreshed aromas. Ah, the joy of innocence! Whereas the best I can do is write a few, imagined words, take photos of the happy, sunrise woods, and wonder what it must be like to be a tree on a morning such as this.

But that, at least, is something worthy and hopeful after all, the Great Mystery says, by way of consolation.

And, for the moment, I treasure that blessing. It is reason enough to give thanks.

My Ravens

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As the headline suggests, I soon had a welcoming, friendly, attitude toward the mating pair of ravens who found a home in my 125-year-old bank barn a couple of years ago.

The barn was obviously a perfect place for the big, black, intelligent, talkative, playful birds. They came and went through an opening high up on the south side of the barn where a couple of boards had come loose. (For all I know, as smart as they are, they may have soon figured out and engineered the further removal of those boards.)

There was plenty of old, loose and baled hay in the loft; and good places high up in the hand-hewn beams to build their nest. They chose well, where two beams met – one horizontal, the other at an angle. Some time that spring after they first arrived, I had to go into that part of the barn and spotted the remarkably big nest, close to a meter across. I tried to leave them alone as much as possible from then on, not wanting to scare them away. I didn’t have much reason to go there, except to search out some of the few remaining bales of straw for mulching strawberries and potatoes. But after a spring storm there was a barn door to fix and that caused some raven commotion: The nesting couple took refuge in the nearby woods where they loudly complained about the intrusion. I tried to commiserate with them in a comforting tone, with assurances that I meant no harm, that I just had a hopefully one-time-job to do and would soon be gone. No problem, I said. “I’ll just get this here job done and be on my way.”

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Be careful about imposing industrial farming methods over traditional in developing countries

(Note: this is a guest post from Tibor Csincsa, of Holland Centre, Grey County, Ontario, Canada. Tibor is a long-time beekeeper who has travelled the world teaching beekeeping, giving workshops, and speaking at conferences. I saw a letter to the editor he wrote in the February 22, 2021 issue of Farmtario, an Ontario farm publication. It was in response to an article on Page 10, ‘Agriculture visions collide in Africa,’ in the January 25, 2021 Farmtario issue. Tibor kindly agreed to let me publish a longer version of his letter in Finding Hope Ness.)

Declaring the modern ‘American way’ approach to agriculture science-based and suggesting other traditional methods, especially European, are something less than that, is a shallow statement at best and, at worst, ignorant.

The ‘scientific’ American approach to agriculture has plenty of reason to do some soul searching regarding such things as soil degradation, less than rigorous agro-chemical licensing, and environmental damage. As a long-time beekeeper, I deal with the consequences such problems on a daily basis.

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I earned my agricultural degree in Hungary and started my professional life there. During my decades long career, I have traveled to Asia, Africa, and eastern Europe to teach beekeeping, organize workshops, and speak at conferences. As a result, I have first-hand experience with the traditional way of farming in those regions. By pursuing my interest in, and promoting, beekeeping, I have visited very remote places around the globe, and not just the showcases of any country’s plant production and animal husbandry.

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A winter blessing: not old after all

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Though it’s late in coming, there’s nothing like the onset of something that resembles a good, old-fashioned Canada winter to test the myths and realities of growing old.

Let’s just say I’ve reached a certain age, well beyond the date when I officially became a ‘senior,’ and became eligible for what’s still called here in Canada, “Old Age Security.”

It’s not that I mind the money. I’m far from being a rich man, financially, anyway. But there’s something fundamentally wrong with sticking the “old age” label on someone at 65, or older, or at all, when they’re not old, not really.

When I was 65, I was still a young man. I could still keep up, and more, with guys half my age. I was still going strong at 70, and even, well, older than that. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve finally had to face up to slowing down to the extent that it may, just may, be time to say, yeah, okay, “I guess I’m old.”

December and January were unusually easy months, as Canadian winters go here on the peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. What happened to those lake-effect, ‘zero visibility,’ early-winter snow squalls? Well, it’s early February and they’re happening now, for the past couple of days, and forecast to keep happening into next week.

Just now, I look out my window and it’s coming down at a rate that could see another 10 to 15 centimeters, or more tonight.

And that means, again tomorrow morning it won’t be time to sit back and think about growing old: it will be time, like this morning, to rise to the occasion, fire up the tractor and the snowblower, clear my long, country driveway; then climb up on that too-old, home-built garage roof and finish clearing the snow off it so it won’t collapse under the weight. And then there’s that other, low-sloped roof I’m not all that secure about and would rather not take a chance and let the snow pile up. Better safe than sorry.

Actually, it’s more than safety; it’s survival. So many big and little things in secluded, rural living can turn into a big, survival problem if you don’t give them their due: a loose bolt on the snowblower tightened, chain and auger mechanisms greased; fresh gas for the generator in case of a power-outage; diesel fuel in reserve, a spare key for the tractor, and careful usage. They’re family, after all, Mr. Massey and now Mr. Massey Too.

I count it a blessing that winter and its challenges have arrived, and I am still up to meeting them.

Still not ‘old,’ not really.

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Epoch Times mailbox surprise prompts fact-finding mission

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I was surprised recently to find a copy of the Epoch Times newspaper in my mailbox here in my secluded, little corner of the world on the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada. Why me? I’m not a subscriber and had no interest in being one.

But then I saw the ‘sample issue’ tag at the top of the front page and realized it was a promotional flyer of sorts, though not routinely delivered like most others. Lots of us on the peninsula must have got it, and many residents of other parts of Ontario, according to media reports. The date of publication-coverage on the pages of the sample edition is January 1-7, 2021. An historic week to say the least.

I recognized the Epoch Times name. I had seen it in passing before in my daily browsing on the internet for news and had been left with the impression it was too conservatively biased for my taste.

But out of curiosity and to be fair I took a look through the sample edition, including a full, promotional page under the heading, “Read what others won’t report,” signed by publisher, Cindy Gu.

“These are trying times,” she wrote. “So, this complimentary edition of the Epoch Times is for you to enjoy. Because what we all need right now is honest, responsible journalism that investigates issues in an objective, and unbiased way.”

I browsed through the rest of the paper and soon got the impression it’s coverage was far from unbiased.

The Epoch Times is described by several online sources as far right-wing in its views, a supporter of soon-to-be former U.S. President Donald Trump, and affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement persecuted and banned in Communist China. The newspaper was founded in 2000 as a Chinese language on-line publication based in New York. A short time later it began publishing a printed edition, and then an English-language edition in 2003. More recently, its strong support for Trump helped fuel a surge in circulation.

The sample Canadian edition’s front page includes an article under ‘USNEWS’ with the headline, “$500 Million Donation From Facebook’s Zuckerberg Used to Undermine US Election, Violate Law: Report.”

thomas more

The article says the report was released in December by the Amistad Project of the Thomas More Society. The Society, a registered U.S. charity, is described in the article as a “constitutional litigation organization.” It is deeply conservative in stance and often involved in legal actions on behalf of anti-abortion and religious-freedom advocates. The Society is named after St. Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. He was charged with treason and beheaded after a trial for refusing to support the King’s divorce from his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, so he could marry Anne Boleyn. More also refused to support the tyrant King’s break with the Roman Catholic church and set up a separate, new national church for England.

The Epoch Times article says Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated a total of $500 million in grants to local election officials across the U.S. to help cover increased election expenses caused by unusual circumstances related to the Covid-19 pandemic. That may not be an accurate number. Numerous online reports put the Zuckerberg donation at $400 Million. But they do confirm, as the article says, that a non-profit charity based in Chicago, The Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) got donations totaling $350 million from Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The CTCL distributed the funds to a total of 2,500 cash-strapped county election offices that applied for help to cope with Covid-19 challenges.

The Epoch Times article, citing the Amistad Project/Thomas More Society report, alleges the CTCL and other non-profits deliberately, and illegally under U.S. election laws, used the Zuckerberg money to target local election office in swing states to benefit the vote in Democratic “strongholds.” It says Facebook and the CTCL did not respond to requests for comment.

APM Reports, the investigative journalism arm of non-profit America Public Media Group, says in an article published December 7, 2020 that it had been unable to get interviews with the CTCL about the private election donations after repeated requests.

“But through a series of interviews, public records requests and a review of public meetings, APM Reports pieced together the details of grant awards in the five swing states that decided the election.” its article says under the headline, ‘How private money helped save the election.’

“APM Reports obtained more than 30 grant agreements and applications between local election offices and the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The documents show requests mainly focused on the logistics of the election: increased pay for poll workers, expanded early voting sites and extra equipment to more quickly process millions of mailed ballots.”

The APM Reports article notes, “In the weeks since the election, allies of President Trump have included the (CTCL) grants in their voter fraud conspiracy theories. They have challenged the legality and neutrality of the grants, claiming that the funding was aimed at boosting Democratic turnout. But an APM Reports analysis of voter registration and voter turnout in three of the five key swing states shows the grant funding had no clear impact on who turned out to vote. Turnout increased across the country from 2016,” the article said, adding, the analysis found that counties in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona that received grants didn’t have consistently higher turnout rates than those that didn’t receive money.”

As the November 3 election approached, local election offices in the U.S. were running out of money. In March 2020, the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) included $400 million for states “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus for the 2020 federal election cycle. This supplemental appropriation funding, distributed by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), will provide states with additional resources to protect the 2020 elections from the effects of the novel coronavirus,” the EAC still says on its website.

The APM Reports article notes that amount if federal funding was widely regarded at the time as nowhere near enough to meet the pandemic-related needs. As a result there were fears the election could be a “catastrophe.”

The CARES election money came with a host of strict requirements, including an unexpected one from Trump administration officials that required states to match 20 percent of the federal money. Only states were allowed to apply, rather than local, county, election officials directly. The EAC also required detailed ‘narrative explanations’ justifying how the money was used for strictly Covid-19 related needs.

EAC

The EAC’s most recent quarterly report, published October 10, 2020, about the disbursement of the CARES money for the period April to June, 2020, says all of the $400 million was used up by then. It notes, “Some states requested less than their full allocation due to concerns over meeting the required 20 percent match.” In other words, the EAC ran out of Covid-19 emergency money to help election officials across the U.S. cope with the unprecedented challenges they faced.

It wasn’t until well after the election that another bipartisan, Covid-19, relief bill was finally worked out and approved by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Trump.

The private donation money, including the Zuckerberg money, proved to be a lifesaver; or, as one elections manager said, “Honestly, I don’t know what we would have done without it.”

Benjamin Hovland, chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and a Trump appointee was, to his credit, one of many high-ranking federal and other officials in the U.S. who issued a ‘Joint Statement’ on November 12, 2020 defending the integrity of the November 3, 2020 election. Click on the link above for the complete list of names. Following is the full text of the statement:

“The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history. Right now, across the country, election officials are reviewing and double checking the entire election process prior to finalizing the result. 

“When states have close elections, many will recount ballots. All of the states with close results in the 2020 presidential race have paper records of each vote, allowing the ability to go back and count each ballot if necessary. This is an added benefit for security and resilience. This process allows for the identification and correction of any mistakes or errors. There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.

“Other security measures like pre-election testing, state certification of voting equipment, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) certification of voting equipment help to build additional confidence in the voting systems used in 2020.

“While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections, we can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too. When you have questions, turn to elections officials as trusted voices as they administer elections.”

It’s well known by now that the Trump campaign and supporters, in their efforts to overthrow the election results, filed numerous, unsuccessful lawsuits alleging the election results in swing states were skewed by fraudulent activities. I found no evidence in my research that any of those lawsuits made an issue in their claims of the private donations that helped local election officials overcome the challenges of holding a national election in the midst of a pandemic emergency.

In summary, there was much more to the private, election-funds story than The Opech Times covered.

Keep your hands on that plow, hold on: January 6, the fate of American democracy, and a door left open.

Keep your hands on that plow, hold on.” — The refrain from an old American gospel/folk song

The wonderful thing about the annual celebration of the arrival of a New Year is the spirit of hope it inspires. Whatever the troubles of the old year were — though they can’t all be consigned safely to history or memory — they can be met with a new resolve. For a wonderful moment, anything is possible again. The earth, this precious, little, blue-green jewel of a planet, has come full circle. Another journey has begun; and with it the chance, again, to get things right, or at least start heading decisively, resolutions in hand, in that direction.

I really would like to continue this post in a hopeful, positive tone, about how I’ve got my seed order in already for the 2021 gardening season, how the renewed interest in growing and eating food you grow yourself is a good thing for more than that good reason. It is also a continuous learning experience that helps keep your body, mind, and spirit healthy and hopeful. Or to put it another way: being close to the soil is good for the soul.

But first, dear, patient, persevering reader, allow me to pause long enough to consider an important event in a few days that could have a huge impact on the shape of things to come in 2021, and beyond. One way or another, January 6, 2021 could be a date that will go down in history as an epic turning point; hopefully, for the better.

This coming Wednesday, starting at 1 p.m., a joint session of the U.S. congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, will meet in the House, to formally hear and confirm the results of the November 3, 2020 U.S. election. That is, the state-by-state, certified electoral college results as voted on December 14, 2020. That process gave the Democratic Party candidate, Joe Biden, 306 electoral votes for President, compared with 232 for incumbent, one-term President, Republican Donald Trump. Biden won the national, popular vote by more than seven million, in an election that saw more than 155 million American voters cast ballots, the most ever.

But Trump has not conceded defeat and continues to claim there was widespread fraud during the election, despite the claim being repeatedly dismissed in court for lack of evidence. Inauguration Day is January 20. The January 6 Joint Session, normally a routine affair, is shaping up to be anything but routine.

Sitting Vice-Presidents of the U.S., in their capacity as President of the Senate, preside over the Joint Session, unless they choose not to, or otherwise are not available. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey declined the job in 1969. In those circumstances the President pro tempore of the Senate presides, the Congressional Research Service says in its December 8, 2020 report, Counting Electoral Votes.

If the current Vice-President, Mike Pence, is not willing or available for whatever reason, he would be replaced by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the current President pro tempore of the Senate.

Assuming he will be presiding, Pence’s job will be to open the sealed electoral college result envelopes from each state, and hand them over to appointed ‘tellers’ to be read aloud to the Joint Session. At that point, his other role, to maintain “order,” could get much more than routinely interesting.

“When the certificate or equivalent paper from each state or the District of Columbia is read, the President of the Senate shall call for objections, if any,” the Congressional Review Service says. “Any such objection must be presented in writing and must be signed by at least one Senator and one Representative. The objection ‘shall state clearly and concisely, and without argument, the ground thereof.’ During the joint session of January 6, 2001, the presiding officer intervened on several occasions to halt attempts to make speeches under the guise of offering an objection.”

The report goes on to say, “When an objection, properly made in writing and endorsed by at least one Senator and one Representative, is received, each house is to meet and consider it separately. The statute states, ‘No votes or papers from any other State shall be acted upon until the objections previously made to the votes or papers from any State shall have been finally disposed of.’ However, in 1873, before enactment of the law now in force, the joint session agreed, without objection and for reasons of convenience, to entertain objections with regard to two or more states before the houses met separately on any of them.”

The report does not clarify what effect, if any, the actions of 1873 may still have on the application of the statute if multiple objections are raised during the upcoming Joint Session. Recent news reports have said up to 140 Republican members of the House may raise or support objections, and so far, 11 Republican senators. Might it be up to Pence to rule objections be handled state-by-state, or collectively, as in 1873? When objections are accepted as valid by the presiding vice-president the Joint Session is required to adjourn, and the House members and Senators go to their separate chambers to debate the issue, for a maximum of two hours. If Pence rules multiple objections during the reading of each state’s electoral results should be handled one at a time, that will certainly spell a long delay in the Joint Session process, and disruption.

The Congressional Review Service report raises another interesting point regarding the “basis for objections.” It says the federal statue and “historical sources” appear to suggest the “general grounds” for objections include “that the elector was not ‘lawfully certified’ according to state statutory procedures.”

The paragraph continues, “It should be noted that the word lawfully was expressly inserted by the House in the Senate legislation (S. 9, 49th Congress) before the word certified. Such addition arguably provides an indication that Congress thought it might, as grounds for an objection, question and look into the lawfulness of the certification under state law.”

The Trump campaign has raised the issue of the lawfulness of state election law — in swing states, not states he won – but the actions were dismissed in court. Will it be raised again on January 6?

There does seem to be lots of potential for the Joint Session to become problematic, to put it mildly. The chances of Trump and his political enablers succeeding in overturning the election results are said by many in the news media to be slim at best, to impossible. But after four years of Trumpism it seems anything, no matter how outrageous, is still possible. And the mechanism of the Joint Session leaves that door open.

Bad enough the fate of the world’s first and once-greatest democracy is at stake; but the fate of the world itself also hangs in the balance.

So much for my hopeful, positive intentions for this post.

Yes, I have ordered my garden seeds for the 2021 season. I strongly recommend you long-time, or Brave New Gardeners, do the same, ASAP, because lots of people are getting on board the grow-your-own bandwagon. It was true last year, and is likely just as true, or even more so, this year.

I promise, you’ll be glad you did: there’s nothing like gardening to offer refuge for the worried mind.