The Canadian may feel frightened, face to face with wild nature. But he may also feel free

RONALD BATES August 1 1973


The Canadian may feel frightened, face to face with wild nature. But he may also feel free

RONALD BATES August 1 1973



The Canadian may feel frightened, face to face with wild nature. But he may also feel free

Years ago I began a poem with the line, “The land he lives in is a lonely one,” an attitude I would now qualify. The size of Canada is of course a fact, not only geographically but imaginatively. To give one example: Jacques Ferron notes how the first settlers felt the need to protect themselves “from the cold, from the isolation, from the untamed country and its terrifying spaces.” As the years passed and Canadians began to people the land, in fact and with the imagination, the cold remained, the isolation diminished, the spaces became less terrifying. Now I would qualify my first line by a change in tense, “is” to “was,” and in person, “he” to “I”: this would more closely, and more openly, represent my present sense of Canada.

Where I stand now can be shown in a series of recollected scenes which form a mosaic, neither vertical nor horizontal but multidimensional, of present fact and remembered and imagined experience. One is as immediate as the other, as full of meaning, as much now, for me, as now is. Some scenes: -venturing out of the house, in the late Thirties in Regina at the height of a dust storm, just to see what it tasted like, in broad daylight which was like dusk, with the sun a dim bronze disc hanging in the prairies blowing away -and later that summer seeing drifts of dirt in the country up to the tops of fences, like snow

-walking late one night, alone, walking home in the dead of winter, the snow glittering ahead like stars in the circles cast by the streetlights and crackling underfoot with a sound I scarcely ever hear down here, down east.

These scenes were not picked consciously to back an argument or force-feed an idea but rose from the subconscious as I stopped, a few moments ago, to focus on what I could most vividly recall of my childhood on the prairies. Now, two things are clear: these scenes have no sense of loneliness for me though I am alone in them, and as they are otherwise unpeopled their centre is landscape. This leads at once to a central Canadian myth so extensively employed in its visual form by the Group of Seven.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Hugh Kenner commented on the “faceless” Canadian image, a landscape with no human figure in it, articulating his piece around such disparate points as Canadian tourist ads in Time and the Group of Seven. Northrop Frye goes further by suggesting that “the outstanding achievement of Canadian poetry is in the evocation of stark terror. Not a coward’s terror, of course; but a controlled vision of the causes of cowardice. The immediate source of this is obviously the frightening loneliness of a huge and thinly settled country.” Frye also underlines the role of winter in our poetry: to reinforce “themes of desolation and loneliness and, more particularly, of the indifference of nature to human values, which I should say was the central Canadian tragic theme.” It is true enough that the Canadian may feel frightened, face to face with winter or wild nature, but he may also feel free.

I turn for a moment, in this connection, to a regional aspect. The centre may be landscape for a Canadian, but for man on the prairies there is so little landscape; all the rest is sky. The reaction of two friends, /continued on page 65

Ronald Bates was born in Regina in 1924, educated there and at the University of Toronto (PhD in English); he served with the Canadian Army, and is now a member of the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario. He has published three books of poems and wrote the book on Northrop Frye for McClelland and Stewart's Canadian Writers series.

ROOTS from page 33 both from Ontario, to the prairies supports Frye’s thesis. The one had the sensation that she was going to fall off the earth, the other looked south from his apartment in Saskatoon and was gripped by a sense of there being nothing between him and Montana. But what I remember most clearly about walking past the last house out onto the prairie was the absolute feeling of exhilaration. And when the Regina-born poet, John Newlove, writes, “Ride off any horizon / and let the measure fall / where it may,” there is defiance touched with a certain resignation, but no fear.

Each one sees Canada from a certain place and at a certain angle. The vantage-point, however, may shift, the Newfie comes to Toronto, the Hog Towner finds himself in Edmonton or Timmins, an Albertan one day stands on Mount Royal looking out to Man and His World. With each change, the focus on Canada sharpens.

When I left Canada for Europe, being reasonably (or was it unreasonably?) young, I was filled beyond the Plimsoll line with North America in general and Canada in particular. In this I was anything but unique, as a glance at some of our fashionable exiles’ fulminations proves. I will always be grateful for my three years in Europe, first for the experience of Europe itself, but even more for the view it gave me of Canada.

Undoubtedly the view was tinted with nostalgia. For instance, I began to feel what Canada meant to me as I strained to hear through the static, of all things, Foster Hewitt broadcasting from the Gardens on a Saturday night.

I will not deny the nostalgia, but neither will I deny the validity of the emotion which is involved with something a Canadian seldom recognizes until he lives for a time in Europe. In the colonial state of mind, from which most Canadians have happily got free, we looked for our tradition, our roots, in Europe. In Europe we find that much of this is true, but we also find something else: that an important part of our tradition is not that of those who stayed in Europe, but of those who left. Margaret Atwood puts it succinctly, and echoes Frye, when she says that “we are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here: the country is too big for anyone to inhabit completely, and in parts unknown to us we move in fear, exiles and invaders. This country is something that must be chosen — it is so easy to leave.” I would add that as our artists, like Margaret Atwood herself, map out the empty spaces and make the parts unknown known, we are able to move less in fear and with more imaginative assurance. And it becomes less easy, less necessary, less attractive to leave.

One day last fall I stood at the top of Signal Hill, leather cap, leather coat,

binoculars hung like a U-boat commander’s, waiting to have my Newfoundland picture taken in a fog so thick you could not see the water down below. Though it was the only bad weather we had the whole trip it seemed somehow fittingly symbolic of St. John’s. A kind of surreptitious, furtive quality of the fog also seemed familiar.

Another part of me, almost more vivid than the time I spent in Camp Borden, Fort Benning and Aldershot, Nova Scotia, was a wartime winter weekend’s leave in Halifax. On the inside of a toilet cubicle door, in the big hotel, a sign

reading “The consumption of alcoholic beverages in public is prohibited.” Above the warning, a bottle opener. In every cubicle. I checked. I checked last fall, too, but a part of our past had disappeared.

One’s sense of place expands, extends, is peopled: a result of where we are, where we’ve been, and where our artists are and have been. And it is more. It is our historical past, the traditions carried over and those left behind. One half of this lies overseas, one half is right next door. For many Canadians one tradition continued on page 66

ROOTS continued

left behind is just over that continentalist’s shibboleth, “the longest undefended border.”

Sweeping into the Mohawk Valley, out of Niagara, on the New York State Thruway is a lot easier and swifter today than it was almost 200 years ago when my ancestors raided back into the farmlands and settlements from which they had been driven by their rebel neighbors. You can’t go home again, but you can go back: as they went, raiding, or as I went, searching the past. Nearing what was, until 1784, Tryon County, I was about to find a local habitation for the family names that flit like ghosts through public documents, muster rolls and memoirs.

As we followed, along the flats, the windings of the Mohawk and the New York State Barge (the Erie) Canal, panorama succeeded panorama. A panorama is a wide view from a certain place; the place seems not to matter and the view is all. A place is never a view, only the fleeting spot you stand on, only a sense, but the only sense you have: the sense of place. That place of sense is where you start from, being there now. But from where you are there is a panorama in space — and time; for each, an individual time and space. And these panoramas help centre you at this place, with this sense.

So we rolled through the German Flats, past St. Johnsville, where the old Palatine Church of 1770 still stands, past Fort Plain and Nelliston into Canajoharie. Here my great-great-great-greatgrandfather, Lieut. Henry Hare, of Butler’s Indian department, was hanged by the rebels as a spy in front of his house, his family, and his former neighbors. Then north through Palatine Bridge on the road to Stone Arabia, where the

shades of other ancestors began to take on substantiality.

Among the first grantees of the Stone Arabia Patent (1723) was a Casselman. Later, Empies settled here, and Markies. Some gravestones bearing these names still stand behind the two churches. About a mile north an historical marker indicates the spot where Adam Loucks’ inn stood. Here the first meeting of the rebel Tryon County Committee of Safety was held. Yet an Abraham Loucks was in Sir John Johnson’s Royal Regiment of New York.

Surely the schizophrenic Canadian relationship with the States is a product of history as well as geography. The American Revolutionary War was as much a civil war as that of 1642-46 or 1861-65. Has there ever been a tabulation of how many families were split? To take one example, the bloodbath at Oriskany in 1777 was apparently in part


caused by the fact that, taunted with disloyalty by some of his colonels because members of his immediate family were fighting with the Loyalists, the Revolutionary General, Nicholas Herkimer, pushed his troops forward in haste and without protective scouts on the flanks. The Yankees were dry-gulched, Herkimer mortally wounded, and after the battle, partly fought in a torrential thunderstorm, the Tryon County militia officers lay dead, all taunting done.

As I drove up Interstate 87 along the Champlain route to Canada, I thought of those who had gone the same way almost 200 years before me. A large pro-

portion of the original United Empire Loyalists who settled Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry counties, were either Palatine Germans or Scots from the Mohawk Valley: German Flats, Canajoharie, Stone Arabia, Johnstown, Schoharie. This area is as much a part of my tradition as the battle of Crysler’s farm. A cannonball from that field serves me as a paperweight. That is part of my particular sense of place, now, as is the nameplate seen on a cottage near Plattsburgh, N.Y., Romeo S. Trudeau, though obviously not at the same level of intensity.

So, finally, I turn to the future — and the past. I sit outside my sauna, a real sauna, not one of those tepid rooms found in executive suites, highrises and motels. This sauna is fired with logs, not heated by electricity; and the cold water afterward does not come out of a pipe, you have to dive into it. The difference between this and the fashionable, bigcity type is the same as that between the taste of fish fresh from the lake and the canned or frozen kind. This is the real thing; all the rest is advertising.

And in front of me is Tilton Lake which we used to call and I still think of as Loon Lake. It is right out of a Group of Seven painting, the violent, sunset colors on the water, the evergreens and birch, the rocky shore and the humpbacked hills on the other shore to the northwest. Although it is not winter, I think of Voltaire’s sneer at Canada. This land is not quelques arpents de neige but an infinity of snow. Voltaire’s countryman, Pascal, felt the fear of infinite spaces which many of our writers share, faced with Canada and their presence in it. My sense of place is other. Both in my city apartment and here on Tilton, I feel most at home — and free. ■