Oh, 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 (Saugeen) Peninsula.
Prior to 1854 the peninsula was the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nations, the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, and the Saugeen First Nation. As a result of Treaty 72, signed that year under duress and and other questionable circumstances, the two First Nations ‘surrendered’ most of what remained of their territory and were left with several relatively small reserves. Even so, in 1857, the Nawash people were compelled to move from their community near the present-day city of Owen Sound to make way for the new, non-Indigenous town’s expansion. The name of the Saugeen Peninsula, as it was known before 1854, was changed to Bruce Peninsula, after the name of the Governor-General of the Province of Canada, which was still a British colony at the time. Canada, an independent and sovereign country, is a Constitutional Monarchy, with a legal obligation to uphold the honor of the Crown.
In 1994 the Saugeen Ojibway Nations (SON) took the unusual step of filing a land-claim lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. The action claims the Crown failed in its Fiduciary (trust) duty to protect the protect SON territory from incursions of non-Indigenous squatters as promised when an earlier treaty was signed. That 1836 treaty ‘surrendered’ the larger part of Saugeen Territory south of the Saugeen Peninsula, as far south as present-day Goderich on the Lake Huron shore, and west as far as the Nottawasaga River near present-day Wasaga Beach. Crown negotiators said they were unable to stop trespassing in that huge area. The two First Nations only agreed to sign the 1836 treaty on the promise that their territory on the Saugeen Peninsula would be protected “forever” by the Crown from further trespass. But again, in 1854, the Crown negotiators said they couldn’t stop the trespassing. The trial into the SON lawsuit began in April, 2019. During the trial, which ended in the fall of 2020, SON presented evidence that appeared to show that was a lie. As of May, 2021, a judgement into the merits of the SON case is still pending, but could come at any time. If the judgement is in favor of SON, the next phase in the case will determine the amount and method of compensation owed the Saugeen Ojibway First Nations.
Hope Ness was almost destroyed more than 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 for reasons that were never clear. It may be the market for magnesium crashed; or it may be that in the mid-1960s the Ontario government was already developing a plan to protect the Niagara Escarpment, and political pressure was applied. At any event, Dow had already bought up most of the farms in Hope Ness when the quarry plan was dropped. The company offered Hope Ness farmers $5,000 for their 100-acre farms, and all but a few accepted, though it caused grief and bitter discord and in some homes. Most of the homes and barns were demolished. One exception was the home and barn on the property I now call home. It survived only because Dow used it as its on-site base of preliminary testing. So, although the natural environment of Hope Ness escaped disaster, the homestead community, the sons and daughters of pioneer settlers, was devastated. The Ontario government soon acquired that land and to this day still owns most of it. A large portion is now the Hope Bay Nature Reserve, a provincial park. More details of the story of how all that happened, and other aspects of the history and continuing existence of a special place can be found here in this blog, Finding Hope Ness. Welcome.11 Revisions
Ah, there’s nothing like listening to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique, to remind me that the tragic sense of life has always been with me.
That’s ‘always’ as when my father saw it when he casually looked down at me, a newborn baby in my crib just as I opened my eyes and looked up. He put his arm across his eyes and abruptly looked away in apparent shock, so I was told many times, and exclaimed, “My God, he’s been here before!”
And, just now, as I write that, as if on cue, a torrential downpour such as I have not seen here in Hope Ness for a long time is flooding my hopeful last planting of sweet corn. But for just a few minutes. Already it has passed, and to the west I see a patch of blue sky.
Tchaikovsky did not, when he wrote this music, his last symphony, near the end of his famous, but deeply troubled life. He suffered bouts of depression, and anxiety about his creative abilities. Had I been there I would have consoled him about that. He conducted the premiere of this music, his last symphony, in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1893. Nine days later he died under circumstances that are still not clear. To say he left his broken heart in this music, and in concert halls around the world countless times through the years since then, is to put it mildly. But it is so much more than that. From beginning to end in the Pathetique Tchaikovsky speaks through his music of the complex human story: innocently hopeful and joyful, full of the spirit of life, but troubled by it, disappointed, regretful, grieving; but ultimately accepting finally with quiet relieve, yet still echoing the sadness of parting in silence.
This is no “rage, rage against the dying of the light:” That too is past; the struggle is over. He, we, imperfect beings have done what we have done, for good or ill, in terrible or most wonderful ways; triumphant even, for a time, but not enough, the promise of our being, not fully realized. And therein lies our tragedy, fading slowly into the vast silence. This music certainly should have been included aboard Voyager, to tell our story.
The last movement especially of the Pathetique is beyond despair: it is an utterly tragic ending. I don’t find it strange at all at this moment in the life of this world, that it seems so to me even more-so now.
And so it apparently seems to conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, as they linger in a YouTube video for a long, last note of silence after the written music ends. It is deliberate, and it is brilliant, as Gergiev, whose quivering fingers I have occasionally found irritating, go perfectly still over the orchestra for that extended moment. No one, in my experience, has ever understood this music so well.
I first heard it when I was 16, one of the first LP records I acquired, with the help of a promotional deal at the supermarket where I worked on weekends and after class; and the last movement especially made it one of my favorite and most-loved pieces of so-called classical music. Strictly speaking, it is Romantic. From that moment on I was sure to come to Tchaikovsky’s defense when I heard someone belittle him as shallow and overrated. On the contrary, he is underrated. Okay, there is the 1812 overture. And yes, the parade of crescendos does wear thin sometimes. But nobody’s perfect. And besides, the music for the thrilling, transcendental finale of Swan Lake makes up for it many times over.
Thank you, Pyotr, for sharing. And I hope your spirit has found peace and joy, in knowing you are loved.
The decisions to start referring to the Bruce Peninsula as the Saugeen Peninsula, and to soon begin formal public consultations possibly leading to a name change for the Bruce Peninsula National Park itself, are not connected to a judgement coming soon in the Saugeen Ojibway land-claim lawsuit, Parks Canada says.
Instead, the name changes are Parks Canada’s ongoing effort to support the reconciliation of Canada and the Indigenous people who live within the country’s boundaries. “The identities and cultures of Indigenous peoples are rooted in land, and honouring connections to place is an important part of Parks Canada’s commitment to reconciliation,” the agency says in a statement responding to written questions from this writer.
“‘Wedokododwin’ (the Anishinaabe word for ‘working together’) begins with small steps. In this spirit Parks Canada team members use the Anishinaabe word ‘Saugeen’ referring to the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula informally and regularly,” the statement says. “A recent letter to partners signaled the intent to extend the use of this language more broadly,” it adds.
That is a reference to an email recently sent to operational ‘partners’ by John Haselmeyer, superintendent of the Bruce Peninsula and Fathom Five Marine National Parks on the upper peninsula in the Tobermory area.
“Going forward, we will be changing how we refer to the Bruce Peninsula. Instead, we will be referring to the peninsula where our two parks are located as the ‘Saugeen Peninsula,’” Haselmeyer said in the email, a copy of which was obtained by this writer. The email also referred to a public consultation process leading to a possible name change for the Bruce Peninsula National Park itself.
When contacted last week for further clarification and comment, Haselmeyer said he was not authorized to speak to the media and requested written questions. Several questions were submitted last week. Parks Canada’s statement and written answers were received a week later.
In the public interest an initial article was written, based on the contents of the email. The article, published last week under the heading, ‘Name change in the works for national park,’ also noted the coincidental timing of the national park-related name changes, and the current status of the long-standing Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s (SON) land-claim lawsuit. A judgement is imminent, following the conclusion of a trial last fall.
In response to a written question about a possible connection to the SON lawsuit and its possible outcome, Parks Canada offered the following answer:
“How Parks Canada refers to the broader peninsula area, and the consultation that will take place to engage Canadians in a discussion about the related name of the park itself are not connected to any litigation.”
The SON lawsuit was filed in Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 1994. The trial began in April, 2019, and ended with final arguments last fall. It is now up to the presiding judge, Justice Wendy Matheson, to make a ruling for or against SON’s claims.
The case centers around Treaty 72, signed in 1854, resulting in the two First Nations that now comprise SON surrendering most of what remained of their territory on the Saugeen Peninsula, as it was then named. SON claims the Crown failed, through the actions of its representatives, in its fiduciary (trust) duty to protect the interests of the First Nations, as promised in an earlier 1836 treaty.
If the judgement is in favor of SON, the next phase of the case in court would be a determination of the amount and method of compensation owed to the two First Nations, the Chippewas of Nawash and the Saugeen First Nation.
The Parks Canada statement has more to say about the possible renaming of the Bruce Peninsula National Park: “There is strong recognition of the ‘Bruce Peninsula’ park’s existing name, including public interest among residents, the business community, and visitors to the region. Parks Canada will undertake public consultations before making any formal changes to its name.”
The statement adds upcoming management planning for the two national parks on the upper peninsula will include formal public consultations, “and there will be many opportunities for Canadians, partners, and stakeholders to provide feedback and guidance over the coming months. This process will include important considerations around names and languages.”
One of the written questions submitted to Parks Canada asked for a definition of ‘partners’ and examples of who they are. Parks Canada’s answer follows, slightly edited:
“The Agency works with partners in local communities to develop new and sustainable ways to manage visitation in popular areas, ecological protection, and regional tourism issues. In this setting, partners refer to the businesses, groups or organizations that Parks Canada works with in the region, examples of which will be the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, government organizations such as the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula, Bruce County Tourism, or RTO7; local tourism providers such as tour boat and dive boat companies; and non-government organizations such as the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Association or the St-Edmund’s Property Owners Association. Many of these have a seat on the park’s Park Advisory Committee.
Another written question asked why a notice about the name changes wasn’t sent to the general public, considering the process has effectively already begun. Following is Parks Canada’s answer:
“A new management plan for Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park is in development. The plan guides management decisions and actions for the parks, and serves as a key accountability document to the public. The process to meet legal and policy obligations while reflecting the interests and input of Canadians unfolds over many months and creates several opportunities for Canadians, partners and stakeholders to provide feedback, guidance and to weigh in on proposed direction, themes and changes. Strategic in nature, management plans outline a long-term vision and include measurable objectives and targets to achieve results.
“This public planning and consultation about the future of the park is also a great time to speak about the name of the park itself. Parks Canada is launching the public engagement process in the near future. Parks Canada hopes that many Canadians will choose to become involved and provide their thoughts about the future of the park.”
The reader can decide if that answers the question.
Calling it a “small, but important change,” Parks Canada has changed the name of the Bruce Peninsula to the Saugeen Peninsula in its ongoing communications with operational “partners” who were recently sent an email message about the new policy.
For the time being the name of the Bruce Peninsula National Park remains the same; but Parks Canada intends to begin a formal public consultation process leading to a possible change of name recognizing the park’s presence in the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation
“As valued partners of Parks Canada, I am writing this morning to let you know about a small, but important, change at Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park. Going forward, we will be changing how we refer to the Bruce Peninsula. Instead, we will be referring to the peninsula where our two parks are located as the “Saugeen Peninsula,” Bruce Peninsula and Fathom Five parks superintendent, John Haselmeyer said in the recent email.
Additional information about a lengthy public consultation process beginning soon to change the name of the national park comes near the end of the email message.
“Please note that the name of the park remains ‘Bruce Peninsula National Park.’ A name change for the park itself requires a longer process of public consultation, which we will be undertaking in tandem with our upcoming management planning consultations,” the message says.
These developments come as an Ontario court judgement regarding the merits of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s (SON) long-standing, land-claim lawsuit is imminent.
In 1994 SON took the unusual step of filing the claim as a lawsuit in Ontario Superior Court. After 25 years of ‘discovery’ the trial finally began in April, 2019. It ended last fall, with closing arguments. It is now up to Justice Wendy Matheson, the judge who presided over the trial, to decide for or against the SON multi-billion-dollar claim for damages. Key elements in the SON case largely focus on the circumstances surrounding a treaty signed in 1854. Under the terms of Treaty 72 the two First Nations that comprise SON, ‘surrendered’ most of what remained of their territory on the peninsula. At the time it was called the Saugeen, or Indian, Peninsula.
That treaty followed another one signed in 1836 that surrendered the largest part of the SON territory south of the peninsula, on the promise that the Crown would protect the Saugeen Peninsula from further incursion by non-indigenous squatters. However, in 1854 the Crown’s British colonial negotiators again said they were unable to control the squatting which had continued on the peninsula. SON produced evidence during the trial that appeared to show that was a lie.
“SON’s claim is that this was a breach of the Crown’s fiduciary duty. What SON is seeking is a declaration the Crown breached this duty. If successful, in a later phase of this claim, SON will be looking for recognition of its ownership interests in lands on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula that are still owned by Ontario or Canada or have not been bought and paid for by third parties (so, municipal roads, for example), as well as compensation,” SON’s law firm, Olthius, Kleer, Townshend LLP, says on its website where a large body of information about the case is publicly available. In contrast, the non-indigenous government defendants in the case have been publicly secretive over the years about the progress of the case.
In a phone interview peninsula national parks superintendent Haselmeyer asked this reporter to submit written questions about the timing and reasons for the name changes, including the plan to begin a formal process to change the name of the Bruce Peninsula National Park.
One of the questions asks if the timing of the changes has anything to do with the SON land-claim case, with an important judgement now imminent. And if not that, then another question asks what else prompted the changes at this time.
Another question sought more information about the ‘partners’ who received the email message. Another asked why peninsula residents weren’t also notified of the name changes, including the name of the national park. The point was made that informing ‘partners’ that a formal process to change the name of the Bruce Peninsula National Park is planned effectively started the process; and, therefore, peninsula residents should have been notified at the same time.
As of this writing the additional information from Parks Canada in answer to written questions was not yet available. There will be a follow-up story when it is.
A judgement in favor of the SON claim will lead to a second phase in the court process in which the amount and method of compensation for SON’s damage claims will be determined. Grey County — previously named as a defendant along with Bruce County and Bruce Peninsula local municipalities, as well as the federal and provincial governments — reached a settlement with SON last fall when it agreed to transfer ownership of a county forest to SON.
Based on that precedent, if the initial judgement is in favor of SON it appears likely compensation could include transfer to the two First Nations of property currently owned by government entities, including provincial and federal Crown land.
Full disclosure here: this reporter lives on a property surrounded on three sides by the Ontario Parks’ Hope Bay Nature Reserve south of Lion’s Head.
Under the sub-heading, “why are we doing this?’ the Parks Canada email explained that the Bruce Peninsula, after it ceased to be the Saugeen Peninsula was “named after James Bruce, a British colonial administrator who was Governor of Jamaica, Viceroy of India, and, from 1847 to 1854, Governor General of the Province of Canada. James Bruce never visited the peninsula that now bears his name.
“Using the name ‘Saugeen’ better acknowledges the connection of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation to the Saugeen Peninsula. Some partner organizations in the region have already adopted this practice, the email said.
“Saugeen is the anglicized version of the Anishnaabemowin word ‘Sauking’ meaning river mouth. It is the traditional name for this peninsula, and was still in common usage well into the 1970’s.”
It’s taken me a long time, way too long, considering how little time we have to live on this precious little jewel of a planet, to fully appreciate the wonder of it all. And by that, I mean everything alive, or seemingly not, like the rock, the moss-covered touchstone, my dogs and I walk to every morning to start the day. What mysteries, what past or even present lives does it hold?
As I reflect on such things, the dogs go about their doggy business of exploring and sniffing every nuance of smell and presence that emerged from the forest during the night to wander across or down the road.
I watch them closely, now more than ever, wondering what interesting stories are being spun and told in their canine minds, and messages going back and forth to each other, as tails wag in excitement and the scent trail carries them along.
I say to Buddy, my big, beautiful German Shepherd, ”whatya got, Buddy? Whatya got?” And he tilts his head the way shepherds do, and lets out a little yelp, as if to say, well, I’ll say it for him, “something really interesting and exciting.”
Sophie, the Cockapoo, pulling hard on the leash, her even more intense sense of smell compelling her to just get on with the exploration. I’ve learned not to let her off-leash; otherwise, if I looked away for too long heaven knows where she might go – off into the woods, up into the barn, somewhere, and me calling over and over, “Sophie, Sophie, Sophie.” She comes in her own good time. I called it mischievous. Sometimes, not being as smart as her, I confess I even called her, “bad girl.” She looks at me as if she’s wondering why I’m not happy to see her. Good point. I am. I just need to get my priorities right, Sophie.
Getting to know both my dogs has been as much a learning experience for me as for them. And how well I do that, I have also learned, makes all the difference in how much we enjoy and appreciate each other.
I had a good teacher. His name was … his name is, Aussie. I can’t bring myself to use the past tense, not yet, or on second thought, not ever. Aussie will always be. There may be dogs that were, and are, as loved and loving. But none more.
I have a friend and neighbor who once told me a few years ago, “dogs are more intelligent than people.”
I think I responded with a somewhat surprised, skeptical look. I may have said, something to the effect that, well, yes, maybe in some intuitive ways.
But I have since come to the conclusion she was right, about the intelligence of dogs in the most important way, a way that, “surpasses all understanding,” words some religious people often use to describe matters of faith.
I’ve had first-hand experience of dogs sensing peoples’ moods, especially when they’re feeling unhappy, and the tears come. I lived on a farm many years ago where two dogs were the best of canine friends. They went everywhere together. The farm was fairly close to a paved road leading to and from Square One, a large suburban mall in Mississauga, near Toronto. One day one of the dogs got hit by a car and was killed. We buried him on a hillside near the house. For weeks, the other dog lay beside his friend’s grave. If anyone said anything to him, to call him over to eat, for example, he would just lie there and look sadly back at us for a moment, and then turn and put his head down again. So we took his food and water over to him.
I was not Aussie’s primary owner when we first met. One day I showed up as a newcomer man-human in the precious place he had shared with Linda since he was a pup. He was about a year-and-half then, an almost full-grown yellow Labrador. I count it as a blessing, that one of the most memorable moments in my life, is when Aussie made me feel welcome. It was as if he already knew me.
It’s true, some dogs, of some breeds, are friendlier than others, and Labs are known to be good-natured. But I say this in all seriousness, dogs have a way of knowing who you are.
Some years later, when circumstances changed, as they often do in human relations, Aussie and I remained good friends, as did we two humans. He always walked over to offer himself up for some petting and a belly-rub. Eventually, I began to call him affectionately, “old man,” as in one old man to another. He was showing his age and getting slower of foot. Not the young fellow anymore who would chase a stick all day if you let him. “Me too, Aussie,” I whispered.
I was glad to be able to help bring him safely home to “the farm” a few days ago.
And now, Aussie, I want to tell you, you are a better ‘man’ that I was in a lot of ways. You taught me a lot about loving, people as well as dogs. And as I write that, and my tears begin again, Buddy gets up from lying a few feet away, to be closer, his eyes knowing.
With the growing popularity of home gardening there must be a lot of people on a steep learning curve trying to come to grips with the apparent uncertainty of the weather.
After all, spring seemed to have arrived early in the Canada-U.S., Great Lakes area with temperatures in the first week of April that were seemingly warm enough to allow for the planting of early hardy, veggie crops like peas, beets, carrots, onion sets, and potatoes.
After years of gardening that should have made me know better, I again found it hard to resist the temptation of eagerness to get started. But I compromised, planting only a couple of rows of early edible pod peas; after all they are called ‘snow peas’ for a reason, I pseudo-rationalized. I also planted a row of onion sets, and two rows of Chieftain red potatoes. The date was April 6. I’ve never planted potatoes that early. Meanwhile, I held off on planting beets, swiss chard, carrots and radishes.
I should have held off entirely, especially the peas. That’s also considering I plant untreated seed; that is, seed not coated with fungicide to keep it from rotting in the ground if the soil temperature is not warm enough for germination. A few more days of warm weather, and the pea seeds and I might have got away with it. There was evidence of germination just getting started. But now, April 18, there’s no sign of little, green pea-plants emerging. I few might survive, but the rows will likely have to be replanted. With temperatures now forecast over the next few days to be below freezing at night here on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, the two rows of seed potatoes buried several inches in their rows should be okay; but just to be sure I’ve covered them with a generous layer of straw. The same goes for the onion sets.
Meanwhile, in the back garden, the numerous fall-planted rows of garlic are looking good. They will be okay without the straw blanket I covered them with for the winter and raked away a couple of weeks ago to give them sun. Garlic, fast becoming a popular crop in southern Ontario, is hardy enough.
I’m not a newcomer on this planet, having lived my ‘three-score years and ten’ and more, but in memory it seems to me the advent of spring, once arrived, was much more reliable than now.
It’s well known that the location of the jet streams, the high altitude winds that circle the globe in temperature regions, is a major determining factor in weather. In the northern hemisphere, the generally west-blowing jet stream keeps colder temperatures north of us, and warmer, south. As the seasons change with the sun, the jet stream used to move south and north in a fairly stable way. But recent years have seen a growing school of thought that climate change is weakening the jet stream, as the Arctic warms relatively faster than tropical regions. As a result, The jet stream’s pattern has become more erratic with deep dips to the south that sometimes appear to get stuck, or ‘blocked’ over certain areas. I keep a close watch on jet stream maps, and have observed, anecdotally, that often in recent years it has dipped down in large tongues or nodes and lingered for long periods of time south of the Great Lakes. Sometimes, it appears to even fragment and get scattered. Depending on the seasons, all that has resulted in long periods of extreme cold weather in winter, and prolonged cool weather in spring. The spring of 2020 at this time, was similar to what’s happening now: an unusual warm spell in early spring, followed by much colder weather, and then a serious snow event in April. I note snow is in the forecast for this week.
Now, snow in April is not unusual. I well remember driving to work one morning years ago in June with snow coming down. But it’s the sudden, dramatic changes and extremes that now seem new and unusual.
The experts admit evidence of the impact climate change is having on the Jet Stream, and therefore weather, is still inconclusive. They do, after all, have a duty to be precise in reaching their conclusions. Meanwhile, the skeptics can find all kinds of supposed reasons why it’s not happening. I choose to believe climate change is having a destabilizing effect on the jet stream that needs to be taken seriously.
From the point of view of gardening, and farming, I would say you are best advised to keep in mind there is a new norm happening: the weather is becoming more erratic. If it seems too good to be true that warm spring weather has come too early, it more than likely has. And you should take a wait-and-see attitude to planting until the weather warms up to stay. Late April, early May is still a good time to plant cool-weather crops. They won’t do much growing until then anyway.
Above all, keep your eye on the jet stream: where it is, and where it’s expected to go. I recommend a new, interactive ‘global’ jet stream map put online by U.K.-based netweather.tv.
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..
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 – exploitive 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, her spiritual and sensual reunion 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. She 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, and her courageous contribution to it, any label, be it ‘regional writer’ or ‘feminist,’ diminishes her even now: Kate Chopin speaks of the human spirit in all its wonderful, though often tragic, complexity. There was much more she could have said, in the years before and after The Awakening, had she found her wings sooner. It is not quite a great novel, by a writer who clearly had it in her to be great.
(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.”
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.