‘Have a Heart’ for desperate refugees in a world going mad

Kind-hearted RCMP officers welcome refugees to Canada at an irregular border crossing a few years ago

File this under ‘How soon we forget the lessons of shameful history,’ including one of the most shameful events in Canadian history.

In thinking about changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement, announced this past week during U.S. President Joe Biden’s official visit to Ottawa, I was soon reminded of the S.S. St. Louis tragedy.

With 937 937 passengers on board, the German-owned, ocean liner left the port of Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939, bound for Cuba. Almost all were Jewish refugees fleeing persecution, death, and violence in Nazi Germany. The so-called ‘Nuremberg laws’ of 1935 had stripped Jewish Germans of their citizenship and civil rights. For a while, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, delayed some of the worst anti-Jewish persecution; but especially after Kristallnacht (literally, the “night of Crystal,” more commonly known as the “night of broken glass,”) a two-day, anti-Jewish, hate-orgy of violence in November, 1938, the persecution became much worse, deadlyand ominous.

“The German Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry also hoped to exploit the unwillingness of other nations to admit large numbers of Jewish refugees to justify the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish goals and policies both domestically in Germany and in the world at large,” says an article titled, Voyage of the St. Louis, on the United States Holocaust Museum article website.

The Nazis must certainly have been pleased by the extent to which their hopes were realized. First, Cuba, refused to let the Jewish refugees disembark in Havana, despite earlier approval and the issuing of landing and transit documents, then the United States; and finally, Canada said, in effect, no way.

Before the St. Louis left Hamburg, it attracted a lot of news attention, especially in Cuba, where right-wing newspapers “deplored its impending arrival and demanded the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees,” says the Holocaust Museum article.

“Reports about the impending voyage fueled a large antisemitic demonstration in Havana on May 8, five days before the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg. The rally, the largest antisemitic demonstration in Cuban history, had been sponsored by Grau San Martin, a former Cuban president. Grau spokesman, Primitivo Rodriguez, urged Cubans to ‘fight the Jews until the last one is driven out.’ The demonstration drew 40,000 spectators. Thousands more listened on the radio.”

The passengers became victims of bitter infighting within the Cuban government. They weren’t told before the St. Louis left Hamburg that Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had issued a decree invalidating all recently-issued, Cuban landing certificates.

The St. Louis reached Havana on May 27, 1939. Cuban officials allowed 28 passengers to disembark: 22 were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas. The other six were Spanish citizens and Cubans with valid documents. One passenger who tried to commit suicide was allowed ashore to be taken to hospital. Another person had died of natural causes on the voyage. The remaining 908 Jewish, refugee passengers carried documents issued corruptly by the Director-General of the Cuban Immigration office, Manuel Benitez Gonzale, and no longer valid. Of those, 743 had applied for but were still waiting for U.S. immigration visas. The ship’s Captain, Gustav Schroder, refused to leave Havana Harbor; but talks aimed at allowing the refugees to disembark failed. On June 6 President Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Havana harbor.

Capt. Schroder took the St. Louis slowly north in hopes the U.S. would allow the refugees ashore at one of the many ports on the eastern seaboard.

“Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded,” according to the Holocaust Museum article. “The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

Apparently, some things never change:

“Both of our countries believe in safe, fair and orderly migration, refugee protection, and border security. This is why we will now apply the Safe Third Country Agreement to asylum seekers who cross between official points of entry,” Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau said at a news conference during U.S. President Biden visit, the CBC reported. “After midnight tonight, police and border officers will enforce the agreement, and return irregular border crossers to the closest port of entry with the United States,” Trudeau added.

As the St. Louis continued north toward Canada, a group of prominent citizens petitioned Prime Minister Willian Lyon Mackenzie King to offer the refugees sanctuary. He passed it off to other high-ranking officials, including Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, and Frederick Blair, director of Immigration, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia:

“Lapointe was ‘emphatically opposed’ to admitting the refugees, and Blair argued that they did not qualify under current immigration laws – laws he had created. ‘No country,’ according to Blair, ‘could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.’”

“At the time religious intolerance and antisemitism were common in Canadian society and even in its cultural and political leaders — right up to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King,” The Encyclopedia Canada article says. It goes on to quote from King’s private diary entry from March 29, 1938:

“We must nevertheless seek to keep this part of the Continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood, as much the same thing as lies at the basis of the Oriental problem. I fear we would have riots if we agreed to a policy that admitted numbers of Jews.”

In fact, one of the worst anti-semitic riots in Canadian had already happened in the summer of 1933 in Toronto, soon after the Nazi (National Socialist German Workers’) Party had made Germany a one-party, fascist dictatorship under its leader (Fuhrer) Adolf Hitler. The Christie Pits Riot on August 16, of that year, “remains one of the worst outbreaks of ethnic violence in Canadian history with over 10,000 participants and spectators,” says The Canadian Encyclopedia. “The riot was sparked by Nazi-inspired youth flying a swastika flag at a public baseball game to antagonize and provoke Jewish Canadians.”

With no sanctuary found, the St. Louis returned to Europe, docking at the Port of Antwerp, rather than Hamburg, Germany. With the help of a Jewish charitable organization, Great Britain took 288 passengers, the Netherlands 181, Belgium 214; and 224 found at least temporary refuge in France. Of the former refugees who found sanctuary in Britain, all survived except one who died in a 1940 air raid. Of those left on the continent, 254 died in the death-camps of the Holocaust.

In retrospect, it’s easy enough to see that under the circumstances at the time, and well-documented history as it is now known, Jewish refugees desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany just before the start of the Second World War were in urgent need of extraordinary, life-saving help. And if that meant that the usual bureaucratic process and rules needed to be set aside, so be it. That anti-Jewish racism played such a role in Canada’s failure to help save Jewish refugees remains shocking and shameful.

The world is now facing a similar humanitarian challenge with immensely tragic consequences as multiple crises arise: wars, the increasingly extreme effects of climate change; and most troubling, the resurgence of hateful regimes that exploit the worst of human nature and its fears: even in the most civilized of nations, including the world’s first and greatest liberal, modern democracy. It’s as if the world is going mad.

Meanwhile, millions of innocent victims have little or no access to bureaucratic processes: all they can do is try to escape one desperate way or another at the risk of their lives.

And if that takes them to Roxham Road, in Quebec, Canada, near the border between Canada and the U.S., or for that matter any other so-called illegal refugee entry point, are they somehow unworthy of being helped, saved from their fate, and thus “sent back?” To What?

Scottish refugees from ‘the clearances’ waiting to board a ship to Canada

To a large extent, Canada itself was made of such people: refugees from a genocide we of a certain age never heard of in schools: The Clearances, whereby Scottish highlanders, tenant farmers called Crofters, were forced, burned out of their homes on Anglicized, aristocratic estates to make way for sheep herds and deer yards. Eventually those refugees, the remnants of the McNichol clan included, found there way on poor ships to Canada.

The same for Irish refugee immigrants, victims of the devastating, mid-19th Century potato famines in Ireland. Many died on the poor ships. Orphan children were adopted by Quebecois families – hence, the prevalence of the name ‘Johnson,’ for one, to this day in many Quebecois families.

Nowadays, I suppose that might be called ‘Critical Race Teaching.’ It’s the truth, and it deserves to be known, and not forgotten.

Let’s have a heart after all, when the times demand it. There’s a better way than closing doors or building walls.

Acrylamide and Food: a shocking revelation

Not that long ago in a ‘What’s on your mind’ Facebook post I recalled how as a boy many years ago in Toronto I happily walked several blocks along Queen Street West every Friday evening to get classic, always delicious, take-out fish and chips for our family dinner. I also remembered the best French fries ever were to be found at the nearby Sunnyside amusement park, now long gone to make way for the Gardiner Expressway.

Since then, it’s fair to say I’ve consumed a lot of restaurant fries over the years with burgers, toasted, three-decker, club sandwiches, as well as home-fried potatoes, in restaurant and home.

Feel free to check that box yourself, figuratively speaking, if the same holds true.

And then there’s the long-standing pleasure in more recent years, of baking my own bread – lately, a light rye specialty – and pizza crust, squash pies, and experimental, ‘necessity’ (Whatever ingredients are handy) muffins, so long as maple syrup is the key ingredient.

Have I ever left the bread in the oven too long, so the crust is thick and dark, and enjoyed it anyway with homemade soup? Yep, been there, done that.

So, to say the least, I was shocked to discover recently I may have been putting my health seriously at risk all that time by eating a lot of fried (deep-fried especially) and oven-baked food like bread and roast potatoes; and many other things store-bought, like potato chips, crackers and cookies. The list, as it turns out now, is very long.

It’s about acrylamide, also called, acrylic amide, an organic compound widely used, and government regulated, in industry for a wide variety of products and purposes, including water treatment.

However, it has only been since 2002 when, first in Sweden, concerns were raised about acrylamide’s presence in food processed or cooked at temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Celsius (248 Fahrenheit).

Since then, public health agencies in the European Union, the U.S. and Canada have been in the forefront of efforts to learn more about the risk to human health. The U.N and the World Health Organization are also involved. Studies involving mice and rats being given high levels of acrylamide, have shown it causes cancerous tumors. That has led to it being officially described a “probable” cause of cancer for humans; but more human-based studies are needed to be certain, the various health agencies stress

Meanwhile, in an abundance of caution, they have offered advice, suggesting people stop eating deep-fried potatoes, turn down the temperature where possible and not bake or toast bread beyond ‘golden brown,’ instead of dark brown; and definitely don’t eat burnt baking products, from store or home. Potato chips are among the foods with highest levels of acrylamide, and, shockingly, many baby foods listed in Health Canada’s monitoring.

A fresh batch of ‘golden’ buns, temp. 375 F instead of 400

Even coffee is suspect, because of the roasting of coffee beans: light or medium is better than dark, or give coffee up entirely. Oh, no, not my morning coffee! That’s a tough one.

Health Canada’s summary, Acrylamide and Food, is one of the best and most readable documents on the issue I came across online. The same agency’s Revised Exposure Assessment of Acrylamide in Food’ and, the long list (Appendix 1) of branded, food products gathered and tested for acrylamide levels is important and revealing for people to know. (If there are problems with the links, google ‘Health Canada Acrylamide and Food,’ and ‘Health Canada, Revised Exposure Assessment of Acrylamide in Food.’) My only criticism of the latter is there needs to be more explanation of the PPB numbers, and symbols and how they pertain to the daily, body-weight impact of acrylamide.

The other comment I have is to what extent this important information about food and public health has reached, well, the public. I follow the daily news closely, I thought, and I’m sure there are Canadians and others around the world who are aware of the concerns about acrylamide in food; but I only found about it accidentally, while researching potatoes for other reasons, and the article I was reading happened to mention it.

There’s lots of troubling news ongoing that gets covered like a blanket: the political situation in the U.S., for one, and the war in Ukraine; but surely the possibility so many of the foods we – billions of us – routinely eat or drink every day may contain a compound that causes cancer, is as important as anything.

Finally, there appears to have been a relative lack of updated information in recent years since the initial flurry after 2002. For example, Canada Health’s Revised Exposure Assessment dates from 2012. Many of its related articles on the topic are already archived. Hopefully, that doesn’t reflect a lack of a sense of urgency.

Sometimes I wonder about the toxicity of the world we live in, the food we eat, the way it’s grown and processed, and what strikes me – yes, anecdotally – as the cancerous result when so many people I know, or know of, are getting sick.

The Herb Rosemary added to your bread dough will lower the level of acrylamide substantially’

Winter as Moment

How long is a moment? I think the assumption has been that it’s not very long at all, a brief and passing thing that comes and goes in little more than the blinking of an eye; and if you want to make the most of it you better seize it while you can.

The problem with that, first of all, is there are moments; and then there are moments. The one is a ‘thing,’ a rather uncertain way to describe a measure of time, as in “give me a moment.” The other is a ‘thou,’ a special, even wonderful experience that when appreciated to the fullest extent possible is timeless.

I knew a man years ago who understood that perfectly. His name was Dan. I believe I’ve mentioned him before in this blog, a not very big man physically, but wise in the ways of the world and humanity. That summer of 1962, my friends and I were a group of usually five or six young men, just finished our first year of post-secondary education. We would drive downtown from our suburban Toronto homes every Saturday evening. We soon found a special place in the old, downtown ‘village’ to drink expresso coffee and talk about weighty matters. I’m not sure how it happened – maybe he was sitting at a nearby table and was amused and interested by our discussion one evening and couldn’t resist leaning over with a comment – but, in any event, Dan became a regular at our table, and in fact was often the focal point. Not that he was that talkative, or trying to be the center of attention; on the contrary he would sit and listen, until inevitably we would here him say, “boys, I tell you something,” in his unusual European accent.

At some point Dan told us he was originally from Luxembourg, a small country surrounded by France, Belgium and Germany. But, really, he was a ‘man of the world’ who had travelled much and done many things, though he didn’t talk much about them. However, one time he happened to mention he had been a talent agent in Los Angeles and that one of his clients was the well-known, Hollywood star, Tony Curtis. In Toronto at the time he had a travel agency. We came to believe there was more to it than travel, though again, he didn’t say anything more. What Dan’s academic credentials were, if any, he never said, but clearly he was a philosopher. Without any doubt he was the best, the most profound philosopher I’ve ever met; and yet he spoke in a way that was remarkably clear and understandable, while at the same time powerful and inspiring. Many’s the time I was high on inspiration as I walked the many blocks home to my garrett room in a rooming house near Cabbagetown.

But I digress. I guess I got into ‘the moment’ there, reminiscing about Dan when I set out to recall one of those times when he would lean forward a little (our signal to listen) and say, “Boys, I tell you something.”

And, this one time, that was followed by, “the man who invented time was a fool.”

“Hah!” my old friend Roger exclaimed. He got it right away, while the rest of us didn’t, not even Bill, who would go on to become one of Canada’s most prestigious academics. Around about the same time, I was reading a book of Zen Bhuddist stories. One stands out in memory, about a man walking alone in nature when he suddenly discovers he is being stalked by a tiger. He tries to run away but of course the tiger is getting closer. The man comes to the edge of a cliff, so high that there would be no hope of survival if he jumps. He notices a bush growing out of the side of the cliff not very far down. He jumps down and desperately grabs hold of the bush, which soon begins to pull out by the roots. He looks back up to the cliff edge. The tiger is there now, snarling hungrily down at him. The man notices berries are growing on the bush as it tears away from the cliff. As he is falling to his death, the bush still in his hands, the man picks and eats some of the berries. He is amazed how wonderful they taste.

That story has stayed with me all those years; but I confess, even so, I didn’t really understand it, not until some years ago when I told it to an angel-woman I had just met. “Well, of course, it’s about living in the moment,” she said, rather dismissively, I thought, my precious little ego bruised.

By then, and still now, ‘living in the moment’ had become a byword for how to live one’s life. I confess, again, only in recent years have I really understood the vital truth of the expression, though I give myself some credit for intuitively sensing it. As my old friend Roger once said after he struggled through a personal, existential crisis, “One of the hardest things for a man to accept is his own limitations.” So true too, Roger, wherever you are.

But trust me, my children, and anyone else who might need to know, you don’t have to be the brightest star in the heavens, nor is it ever too late to understand the big stuff, like living in the moment or becoming the person you really are. I thank goodness, and count my blessing, that I’ve lived long enough to know both of those things finally. Coming to an understanding of living in the moment is mostly a function of the spirit, and becoming who you really are by embracing the child within is the key that helps unlock that door.

These thoughts arose from the morning walk with the dogs after a fresh snowfall. I had found myself falling into that old trap of thinking of a Canadian winter as something to be endured. I saw another dark, snow-squall cloud coming off nearby Lake Huron; but still, blue skies breaking through, and my dogs burying their noses into the snow and savouring fresh scents left overnight by various creatures. Their excitement put me to shame, for not embracing ‘winter as moment.’

It must also be said that for many people winter is surely something to be endured, on top of the tragedy they’re already suffering. The people of Ukraine come readily to mind, as Putin’s Russia seeks to destroy essential infrastructure and make winter unbearable for them. Meanwhile, there are people not that far away in Canada who are cold and homeless this winter. Those are also examples of ‘winter as moment,’ but in the worst sense of the expression.

“The woods are lovely…

“…Dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

That last profoundly mysterious verse from Robert Frost’ great poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, came to mind as I walked the dogs down Cathedral Drive just after sunset.

Great poems come in different ways: in some the wording is complex, thoughtful, and for some readers, obscure to a degree or more regarding the meaning. In others, like Stopping by Woods, the wording is simple and straightforward, while seeming to be perfectly well-chosen. It’s as if the poet doesn’t want the words – too many, and too heavy – to get in the way. I think it’s true to say a great poem often essentially writes itself. The words come on a wave of inspiration, and the poet has a sense they are merely the vessel through which the words flow. The same goes with great music. Still, there may be skillful work to do, to carefully polish the gem without ruining it. Stopping by Woods is that kind of great poem, and a miracle of words because so much of what it says is without words.

Robert Frost

The opening line, for example, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” I go back to that time and time again, as I did this evening, knowing full well what it’s about in my heart and soul, after almost 80 years of life on this little jewel of a planet: so wonderful, so troubled, so joyful, yet so terribly heartbreaking and too often hard to bear.

We all grow weary, do we not? It is the tragic sense of life, my children, my friends, my fellow member of the human family. We all share it, one way or another, and we all have our own way of dealing with it, or not.  

So yes, no doubt there is a tree, under which a man could lay down and find some rest, snow and cold or not. Yes, it is a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” to quote Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Now there’s a poet, Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about ‘the tragic sense of life’ and all the bittersweet rest of it, to be sure.

In Stopping by Woods, Frost finally speaks of having “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” His repetition of that last line is the most perfect expression of the mood, the fate we all share, the need after all to “keep on keeping on,” as many of us often say in our plain-speaking way.

What I saw that helped me feel hopeful about keeping on, and hopeful for what tomorrow might bring for the world in general, was the line of setting-sun light on the horizon, beyond the woods, below the clouds.

I took it as a sign. One never knows what the next moment will bring, something good, something wonderful, a new day in every sense of those two, simple words.

.

Perfect storm of summer-warm Great Lakes waters, and a cold wind pulled south by the plunging jet stream focuses the mind on one thing: snow removal

Two essential members of the family on a snow squall warning day

But this is mid-November! Even here in Ontario, Canada 90 centimeters of snow in two days in the fall of the year, and more of the same forecast for the next two days is not normal. Not to mention across the border with the U.S., Buffalo, New York has been buried under twice that much snow. That also is on account of ‘lake effect’ snow squalls forming over Lake Erie, Lake Huron further west, and maybe even Lake Ontario. to the north. Once on their way those squall lines can track across hundreds of miles, or kilometres.

It’s worth noting that up until this past Friday, November broke records in Ontario for summer-like temperatures. Here at the end of Cathedral Drive, on the Bruce/Saugeen Peninsula, near the shores of both Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, the temperature reached the mid-20s Celsius, or mid-70s Farenheit. Two days before the Friday night snow squall hit, I transplanted some Lavender plants. I was worried that was maybe too late, that heavy frost before snowfall might do them in. But now? No problem: the lavender is safe, sound and relatively warm under a thick blanket of snow. The soil might not even freeze if much of that blanket remains, and I think it will. Indications are, including a seasonal, winter forecast I saw months ago, that it’s going to be that kind of winter: long, cold, and snowy. The thick snow blanket will also be good for the garlic I planted a month ago.

Yes, there is a bright side to this unusual weather, extreme, one might even say. I know, tell that to those folks in Buffalo who can’t find their cars because they’ve been buried under 6 ft of snow, So, I hasten to add, I feel your pain, and I sympathize. The last couple of days have been interesting to say the least, here at Cathedral Drive farm. And I can’t wait to find out what the next two days will bring by way of challenges, let alone the rest of winter.

Not to belittle what city folks are going through, especially in Buffalo, but country life has it’s own type of challenges. For example, above all everything depends on being able to get around by car or truck, or horse and wagon, whether it be to the grocery store in a village some 8 kms away, or anywhere. And that, as we all know, that starts with the driveway.

So when I woke up early Friday morning as usual when it was still dark, and let my two dogs out the back door for their morning pee, one look at snow already up to my knees told me whatever I had planned the day before for this new day, was kaput. Even Sophie the Cockapoo, took one look and didn’t want to go out. Buddy my big, beautiful German Shepherd, plunged right in, disappearing into the darkness to check out this sudden, drastic change in the nature of his territory. As for me, I put on my boots, plugged in the long extension cord, and headed for the garage to turn on the tractor’s block heater. On the way I gave myself a pat on the toque for having the presence of mind to connect the snowblower a few days before, despite the warm weather. It had been up by the barn since the last time it was used early last spring. I shuddered at the thought of how hard it would have been to do it under these conditions. The need to get busy and clear the driveway before the snow got much deep deeper was pressing. It’s not a big, two-augured blower; and though it normally does the job, this was not normal and it has its limits.

About an hour later, the tractor/snowblower and I plunged into the snow. Whoops, let’s give that another try with the blower a little higher. That worked, and that became the procedure: a bit at a time, forward and back, up and down, to get the first pass done down the long driveway to the road. Then it was easier, taking the next two passes on either side overlapping with the first.

Oh, did I mention I got stuck, that I went a little too far on one side, where there was a slope near a culvert? Well I did, and for a while I thought that might be the end of my snowblowing for the day and perhaps longer. But let’s just say, you find a way, and/or the tractor/snowblowing gods smile, and life goes on. The next urgency was shovelling at least a tonne of snow off a couple of roofs at risk

A few ups and downs continued to happen during this snow squall ‘event,’ and no doubt there will be more. You keep on keeping on. There are neighbors willing to help, and vice versa, if need be. But you know they’ve got their hands full too. Later there were some “are you okay?” calls both ways.

That’s also the way country life goes, and I know for a fact that’s true of city life too. Trust me, there are lots of good people in the world, down the road or the street, or one the other side of the world. That’s one of the things you find out when the weather chips deal you a challenging hand.

On being reminded of human goodness: a wonderful moment

The historic Great Hall of Toronto’s Union Station

“Keep your heart and mind open to the possibility of wonder: you never know what the next moment will bring.”

Recently, I have found myself saying that often, especially when someone I know, or have just met, talks about a personal struggle they’re experiencing to the point of despair, or how much they’re troubled about the terrible state of the world.

The wonder that might be seen, heard, or thought in the next moment may not save the world. It may be a relatively small thing in the broader personal or global context; but if it lifts your spirits to suddenly see the rising sun shining bravely through a small break in dark clouds, that is also wonderful. Let it lift and embrace you, and give you hope. “Anything is possible,” I often end up saying.

I took that attitude to heart myself just over a week ago when I ran into trouble trying to get to Kingston via Toronto to visit my daughter at her horse farm in rural, eastern Ontario.

I had it all worked out. At least I thought so; except what’s the point of having a plan if you don’t write it down and pay attention to it?

So, instead arriving at Guelph Central Station in time to catch a 12:55 pm GO bus to Union Station in Toronto, that bus had already left. I assured my good friend and son-in-law Ryan not to worry, and to head back north. I still had four hours to get to Union Station, even if I had to take another GO bus to Square One, in Mississauga, and then transfer to yet another one.

Fortunately, as it turned out, I took a seat near the driver, after he showed me how to scan my Visa card on a thingy near the door. Other people boarding the bus, most if not all of them, had something called a ‘Presto’ card to scan, as if they’ve done it every day, twice a day or more, for years, which they no doubt have. I, on the other hand, haven’t used public transit in the Toronto area since the virtual, technical Stone Age.

The Queen Street W. streetcar, circa 1950s

Yes, my children, I am old enough and far enough removed from those days to remember when a child could board the Queen Street West streetcar and drop a nickel into the fare box for a trip downtown. And then when the Yonge Street subway, Toronto’s first, was built and running in 1954, I could put a quarter into a fare box at a glass booth watched over by an actual person at every station.

So, to put it mildly, I was feeling my age, and like a stranger from the boondocks, though Toronto is my hometown (with a couple of breaks to live for a few years on southern Ontario farms). But it has been 42 years since I moved up to the Bruce (Saugeen) Peninsula, and I could count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I’ve been back. And that’s when I was still driving.

But then on the troubled trip some wonderful things started to happen, and this is the real subject of this story: the kindness of strangers who helped me on my way.

When the second driver gone on the bus to await his turn to take over the wheel at a stop before Square One, the first driver brought him over to where I was sitting and explained that I was trying to get to Union Station to catch a Via Rail train leaving there at 5:32 pm. The second driver nodded his head as he looked at me with an expression that told me he would do what he could to help me get there on time. And he did indeed, or perhaps I should say, he tried his best.

He was driving the bus when it reached Square One. I was the last person to get up to leave when he told me I’d be better off to stay on the bus as he drove it south into Toronto to the Kipling bus terminal where it was to be parked for the night. There, he said, I would be able to get on a Bloor Street subway train, which would take me to the Yonge Street subway; and then I could take a southbound train to Union Station. My experience years ago on the subway told me he was right. It was my best hope to get to Union Station quickly by avoiding surface traffic.

I thanked him for his help and checked the time. I had less than 45 minutes to get on the train to Kingston. “Be sure you get off at the St. George stop, and go south on the Yonge Street subway,” he said helpfully. I nodded my head and reassured him I understood.

I want to say something here for a moment. I don’t routinely identify people by their ethnicity. I believe there is one human family of many nations, and I don’t think that’s a contradiction.  I am proud of Canada’s multicultural, welcoming diversity. I want to make a point of saying both these drivers appeared to be of an east Indian nationality, likely either immigrants to Canada or first-generation; and they are my friends now even though I only met them once and may never meet them again.

I missed my train by five minutes; but that’s my fault: with their help I almost made it.

I maybe could have stayed overnight somewhere in Toronto and taken a train to Kingston early the next morning. But my daughter Susan, who I was going to visit, wouldn’t hear of it. If I could take a GO train as far east as possible, to Whitby or Oshawa, she would drive there from her farm north of Kingston and pick me up.

With help from a security guard at Union Station, I quickly found the GO Rail area. I approached a woman identified as a GO employee, there to help folks like me. She helped me use my Visa card to buy a ticket to Oshawa, then walked with me to the platform where that train would soon be arriving. She was genuinely kind and helpful and wished me well.

It was late when my daughter and I reached her beautiful farm-home where I spent a lovely week. The trip there did not go as smoothly as I had hoped; and yet I have nothing but good thoughts about it as I think about the kindness of the good people who helped me.

Pepper, sweet mare.

I also think about the woman and her husband on the GO bus who were on their way to Pearson Airport and with whom I had a pleasant conversation. Turns out they had recently been guests at a friend’s cottage on the peninsula, and they were also avid gardeners.

It was ‘all good.’

Going for a walk in the woods with Sora

A message of profound hope for a world turned upside down

It’s still there in my list of favorite movies; right up there with Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc; Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon; Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring; Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire; Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront; Grigory Chukray’s Ballad of a Soldier; and most recently Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent.

Although the original film version of The Poseidon Adventure, was the top-grossing movie of 1973, most reviewers didn’t regard it as anything that special: just an above average example of the then-popular disaster-movie genre with an exceptional cast. They included previous Academy Award Oscar winners Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, and Red Buttons. It was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two second-tier awards, one for Best Original Song, ‘The Morning After,’ the other for Special Effects. Hackman won the British Academy Film award for Best Actor in a Starring Role, and Winters won the Globe aware for Best Supporting Actress. Summarizing 25 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes gives The Poseidon Adventure a modestly good score of 6.94 out of 10.

I’m not even going to go there, other than to say 20th Century Fox, the producers, and director Ronald Neame could have done a better job of first realizing, and then focusing more on what I regard as the story’s powerful, allegorical message of hope.

Based on a 1969 novel by Paul William Gallico, I can only suspect “adventure” was added to the book and movie title to attract a mass audience. Fair enough, especially if, as a result more people get the message consciously or subconsciously; and remember it now meaningfully, as I do, in a world turned upside-down.

Here in a nutshell is what The Poseidon Adventure is about: The Poseidon is an aging ocean liner on its last voyage before heading to the scrap yard. It is New Year’s Eve, and the clock is about to strike Midnight. There has been an earthquake deep in the waters of the Mediterranean Ocean. A huge Tsunami wave strikes the ship, causing it to capsize. Sensational scenes of chaos and death ensue in the great banquet hall where New Year’s celebrations are in full swing when the everything is suddenly turned upside down. There appears to be no way out as explosions rock the ship, leaving only a small portion of the hull above water. However, learning from another passenger that the thinnest part of the hull is at the propeller shaft beyond the engine room, Reverend Frank Scott instinctively sees hope. He begins to urge people around him not to give up and soon has a small group willing to join him in a journey through the bowels of the stricken ship. He calls on others to join his little group and climb a tall Christmas Tree raised up to a door in the now upside-down banquet hall. Most survivors gather around the ship’s purser, the officer in charge of money and material needs. Others try to climb the tree after all, but under the weight of too many people, and with the explosions continuing, the tree falls.

Rev. Scott, played by Hackman, and his group begin their journey. They include a Jewish couple from New York on their way to Israel to see their newborn grandson; a police detective and his wife, a former prostitute who he loves dearly; the ships singer; a young brother and sister going to meet their parents on holiday in Greece; and a mild-mannered, life-long bachelor obsessed about his physical health.

With Rev. Scott’s help and advise they overcome many obstacles. At one point, he gets into trouble swimming underwater in a flooded area to find the best way forward. He is saved by the middle-aged Jewish woman, played by Winters, who just happens to have been a competitive swimmer. But as a result, she has a heart attack and dies.

They come upon an area where the way forward seems impossible. Down below is a deep chasm of burning oil. Before them, just out of reach, is a valve spewing burning-hot steam. The detective’s beloved wife slips and falls to her death. The broken-hearted detective, played by Borgnine, angrily blames Rev. Scott. He in turn vents his anger at God.

“How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many lives?” the admittedly unorthodox minister asks God. “You want another life? Take me,” he cries, before jumping over the burning chasm to grab hold of the burning-hot valve.

Gradually, slowly, with painful effort he turns the valve off. But his strength is fading.

“You can make it,” he calls out to the survivors of his group. “Keep going,” he says.

He turns to the detective, still grieving the loss of his beloved wife. “Get them through,” Rev. Scott says, falling to his death

And so the detective does, until they finally reach the point where the propeller shaft goes through the thinnest part of the hull; but they have no tools. What can they do? They hear a sound outside, the roar of a helicopter engine, and boots walking above them. They begin to bang on the hull. Those above hear it. Soon, an acetylene torch is cutting through the metal. A hole big enough for people to get through is opened. Hands reach down to pull them up.

Then we see the helicopter taking off again into the sky with the only survivors of the Poseidon aboard.

That’s hardly a ‘nutshell,’ I guess.

So be it. Just as well: it doesn’t leave much room for too many words of discussion, analysis, and argument about the meaning of it all. Some might say there is none; others of a certain evangelical religious bent might see a transcendental message, the helicopter being a metaphor for the long-awaited fulfillment of ‘end time’ prophecies

If he were alive today, I might ask Paul Gallico what meaning he meant; but from what I’ve read about him I have a hunch the very prolific author/journalist would laugh uproariously.

I won’t judge or question. I will only I say what I still see: a message of profound hope: hope for life, and for those who weep and struggle in these seemingly hopeless times to keep up their spirits, but who ultimately renew their love and their faith in life, and do not give up.

Wonderful surprise ongoing: volunteer squash wanted to live

A row of transplanted ‘volunteer’ squash, hoping for a warm September

As many of my millions of readers will know, I live in anticipation of the next wonderful and often surprising moment.

They may not necessarily have global significance, except in so far as in that moment there could also be a meaningful message that might help someone on this still-beautiful, little planet get through their day and find hope for the future. And that is no small thing, after all.

And so, I offer this moment in my garden, leading possibly to yet more wonderful and surprising moments:

It began ordinarily enough: In early July I decided it was time to spread the compost pile that began during and after last years garden season as I worked the garden and to a large extent lived off the produce through the winter. The strawberry patch had finished producing, so I spread what appeared to be well-done compost in between the rows. About a week later I was amazed when I saw that hundreds of squash plants had ‘volunteered’ to germinate.

“Look at us,” I imagine them now crying out to me at the time, “we survived. We didn’t want to go off into the compost realm of being, however interesting it might be. We wanted to live again, as Squash.”

Now, you may wonder at the state of mind that considers such fancies. But in my dotage I have learned to let it “all hang out” finally, to have a little imaginative fun, when there’s no harm done. Call it freedom.

At any event, I let the volunteers grow, but was again amazed to see even more emerge, pushing their way through the crowd until it was obvious they would all soon make a canopy over the overwhelmed strawberry plants. So, I made a choice, first to thin the squash crowd, then transplant the best to a row of their own where I had planned a couple of new rows of strawberries as the runners from the existing rows spread that way. I reasoned that by the time the squash produced a late crop in September, assuming no early frost, that the ground would still be available for strawberries after the squash was harvested.

The other part of that reasoning was complicated by the fact I didn’t really know what to expect, regarding the type of squash the volunteers were likely to be. I had grown a couple of types of squash the previous season, including one I called my “weird” squash because it was derived from seeds I had saved from the 2020 season when I planted two varieties too close together and got a surprise hybrid that turned out to be remarkably colorful, and tasty, but hard to cut open.

So, “to make a long story short” as I say way too often, it remains to be seen what the volunteers will be. So far as I can tell from the fruit just starting to form, it looks like a butternut/acorn combination ‘winter’ squash.

Time will tell.

The original ‘peaches and cream’ sweet corn, non-GMO, Ontario Seed Company, ready to pick at Cathedral Drive Farrm

I find it very interesting to experiment in the garden like that, following an intuition not to get too carried away. There’s more than enough of that going on. Yes, of course, a good deal of selection has taken place over the thousands of years human beings have domesticated and naturally developed plants for consumption. But genetically engineering plants seems to me to be treading where we don’t belong. For example, vast quantities of corn, sweet corn included, have been bio-engineered with bacillus thuringiensis, a natural organism present in soil. In concentrated form it has been used, myself included, for years as an organic pesticide, harmless to humans, to control corn borer and corn earworms. They were not indigenous to North America, but once introduced accidentally years ago, there was always a big risk of a spoiled crop. But now, one of the problems with GMO-BT corn is – because “nature abhors a vacuum” – the sweet corn pests are already becoming immune to BT.

Speaking of squash again, squash bugs are a pest that often attack squash plants. I am very reluctant to use even organic, insecticidal soap to control them, mainly because I often see bumblebees and other pollinators feeding on the pollen of those beautiful, bright orange squash plants. So far this year, there doesn’t appear to be a serious squash bug problem in the several plantings of butternut squash and among the ‘volunteers.’

So, all things considered, I am looking forward to a wonderful squash harvest this fall.

Speaking of the back field and the nature of heritage

It’s been 40 years since I came here to help the late Wilma Butchart and her son Cliff bring in the hay from that beautiful back field that reached out to the depth of their old farm lot, with the mature hardwood forest on either side.

Wilma and Cliff were the first Hope Ness residents we met in the late spring of 1979 when my then wife, Colleen, and I moved up from Toronto to Hope Ness. They welcomed us in the traditional way, with a gift of home-cooked goodness, a generous smile, and kind words. We became friends, and thanks to Wilma and Cliff we learned a lot about the history of Hope Ness, especially the Dow Chemical ‘takeover’ in the mid-1960s. (I have written previously about that in Finding Hope Ness at this link.)

Hope Ness was saved from the terrible fate of being turned into a huge quarry when Dow decided not to go through with its plans, and the Ontario government ended up owning the 2,000 acres (810 hectares) Dow had bought for a measly $5,000 acres per 100-acre farm. But most of the homes and barns had already been demolished, except for the Butchart farm, where Dow had set up its on-site base of operations. Wilma and Cliff continued to live there as tenants when the province took over ownership. Eventually, they managed to get title back to the house, barn other out-buildings, and 5.9 acres. They were also able to continue cutting and taking the hay off the back field to feed their livestock. That permit stopped seven years ago when Cliff passed away. Coincidentally, the province decided about the same time to stop issuing any more such permits on its Hope Ness land. That includes the Hope Bay Nature Reserve which surrounds the former Butchart home and property which I now own, and where I live.

I keep the hay cut on the small part of the back field I own. Beyond that I can see the new tree growth is now well underway. Already, that part where the forests on either side were nearest has begun to close, like a door on the past.

I remember being out there with them, Wilma driving the same Massey-Ferguson 65 tractor I’m still trying my best to keep in good shape, me tossing the bales up onto the hay wagon, and Cliff building the load. And so it went, back and forth to the barn to unload, for several days.

Invariably now, as I stand beside the barn and look out from there over that field as the trees and other seasonal-wetland vegetation take it over again, I also think about the years of back-breaking work that went into clearing that land. And also, the intense work that went into digging wells to help drain it, as often happened in those days. The most remarkable, where the back field begins, is a 20-ft deep well, carefully and expertly walled with stone and cement. That well also served as the main source of water for the house and pasturing livestock. It seems almost unimaginable, and yet I can see it after all in my mind’s eye: the men down below in the darkness, rocks and soil being hauled up by others. By the end of the spring run-off that well is always full to the brim. I use it to water my market garden as needed, which is often, this dry 2022 season especially.

The first house, later used for livestock.

All that work began in Hope Ness after 1880 when the first owner, John Heath, bought the 100-acre lot for “one hundred dollars,” according to the Crown Patent. Other Hope Ness settlers arrived about the same time from down south, or from ‘the old country.’ They had hopes; they had dreams; they worked their hearts out. For some it was too much to bear. Others stayed and survived, with more hard work that we nowadays can hardly fathom. Eventually, by the time the man from Dow showed up that fateful day, there was “a farm on every hundred acres,” as I heard it said in the summer of 1979. And even then, it was still a hard-scrabble, subsistence way of life. So, $5,000 must have seemed like a lot of ‘cash money,’ and maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance for something better.

I do know that Wilma Butchart (Tucker), born and raised in Hope Ness, never wanted to leave. She loved this land, and the walk through what she called “the Cathedral Woods” to the lookout over Hope Bay, and Georgian Bay beyond. It was her refuge, her special, even sacred, place.

As a child and young woman born and raised on the nearby Tucker homestead, she loved to walk through the woods. She told me of seeing First Nation people from their nearby Nawash community across Hope Bay gathering edibles and natural remedies in those same woods. She spoke respectfully of that experience. I’m sure she would have joined them, being who she was. And she certainly would not have thought it amiss in any way; on the contrary, she would have welcomed them.

As I look out across that field, I wonder also how much time it takes to have a true heritage, a feeling for a place, the land, the waters, that goes so deep it becomes an essential part of one’s being. Less than 100 years of non-Indigenous settlement had passed since 1880 by the time Dow showed up in the mid-1960s; and little more than 100 years since the Treaty of 1854 that opened the Saugeen Peninsula for settlement was signed under controversial circumstances. The era of settlement is not “since time immemorial,” it is fair enough to say.

And what of me? Am I, who wasn’t even born here, entitled to feel that I truly belong here, this place where I feel so much at home, which I love, as if it was always meant to be? Or is that a foolish thing to say, let alone think under all the circumstances?

I ask these questions sincerely, without any underhand motive. It’s just a question, from my heart to other hearts who know what it means to love their heritage.

Corn, squash and beans growing in the front field, August, 2022.

On the hopeful resilience of gardening, and Lawrence O’Donnell’s interesting timing

In these most troubling times, with among other things the world’s first and greatest modern democracy in grave peril, I look daily to my garden for relief and consolation, and hope. I trust I’m not alone. Others, I know are doing what they can in their own way to keep their spirits up.

Every annual garden season in this little part of the world has its challenges; and the 2022 season has been no exception: unseasonably cool weather and drought in spring held held back the growth of plants started indoors then transplanted outdoors in late May. Seeds planted were slow to germinate. Many hours spent pumping and hauling water from two dug wells helped keep the garden in survival mode. When the rains finally came, it was never enough. A good soaking rain a week or so ago for a couple of days finally did wonders for the ‘three sisters,’ corn, squash and beans, and the prospect of Roma-type tomatoes for homemade pasta sauce.

But most of all I am again reminded of the determination of plants, and the strength of the life-force to overcome hardships, not the least of which is the heavy, clay-loam soil in these parts. Before the recent rain, when I set about to dig the first row of Yukon gem potatoes, I had trouble getting the digging fork into soil that seemed to have turned into virtual cement. And yet, there they were, good-sized plentiful tubers, showing only slightly the struggle it must have been for them to form. My habit of mulching with a generous depth of straw surely kept some moisture in the ground. But I give the potatoes most of the credit for their fortitude. Then came that soaking rain and the digging became easier.

Before the rain I was wondering how the sweet corn – the original, Ontario Seed Company, ‘peaches and cream’ bicolor – was ever going to fully develop and ripen. But within a few days, the development of the cobs was remarkable. And now I fully expect to have lots of corn ready for harvest by the end of the week, and on into the Labor Day weekend, and beyond, with a good, old fashioned corn roast to celebrate.

Likewise, the Roma tomatoes looked good alongside a bumper crop of Genovese basil, and another called ‘Sacred.’ That name reached out. I had to have it.

And so I am reminded again that hope, the appreciation of life’s rejuvenating powers, is the spiritual harvest of gardening and life. Good things can still and surely must happen. We must not give up.

By the way, for further context, I submit the following link that appeared on Youtube again a couple of days ago, with interesting timing regarding the recent Search Warrant that retrieved certain documents from Donald Trump’s home in Florida. The question has been asked what he might have done with them, or done already.