Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

October 10, 2014

something to believe in

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 21:22

“though we rush ahead to save our time, we are only what we feel” — Neil Young

“well we’ve both lived long enough to know we’d trade it all right now
for just one minute of real love”
– Patrick Henderson/Michael McDonald

Rickie-Lee-Jones-Piratesand then, after all –
after all the struggle, all your life, to fit in, to belong,
to do what you’re told you’re supposed to do,
to be who you’re supposed to be,
after you’ve finally figured out how this world actually works,
how this civilization makes us all ill,
and how it’s falling apart faster than we can imagine,
after you start to begin to begin to understand
what it means to be human,
and that your sense of self is all illusion
that you are a nothing less than the complicity of a trillion cells –

after all that,
you realize that none of this matters without love.

you tell yourself that your life is, still or finally,
full of love,
but why, then, do you so crave appreciation and attention,
love’s sad substitutes?

you say you love this person,
but it’s really not the same as what you once felt,
that incredible rush, that delirious invincible feeling.
you want proof that it’s still love,
it’s just you that’s jaded,
that the person who sits across from you at dinner,
listening attentively, you imagine, to your words,
that the crowd before you when you speak, or perform,
nodding and applauding enthusiastically, it seems,
that the work you do, for which you’re paid and highly rated,
prove that you are loved,

and that you love them in return.

but something’s missing, something that was once there,
making you joyful and filled with purpose, has somehow
quietly stolen away, leaving a silence, an emptiness.

you try to blame this loss on many things:
on our monogamous, love-stingy society
in which “the best ones are always taken”,
and in which the work of trying to keep love alive
becomes just another grinding job.

or on the insensitivity or stupidity of others,
and the exhausting slavery of modern work,
which make our hearts hard and cold.

though mostly you blame yourself,
for not caring enough about all you have,
for hurting, and letting down, the ones you claim to love,
for always wanting more, and what and who you can’t have.

but who you blame doesn’t matter either;
it changes nothing –
doesn’t lessen the pangs, the yearning
for more love, new love, real love,
love that makes life meaningful,
makes it all worthwhile.

so you retreat back to distraction:
you love this music, these stories, these videos,
your snuggles with the dog,
the cutie at the store or down the hall
who always smiles at you.
surely these count as love, most of them:
they lift you up, give you hope that real love can be found
or found again,
that that feeling for which you live, body and soul,
is still possible, is not gone forever.

image from the cover of Rickie Lee Jones’ album Pirates

October 7, 2014

Black Swan: A Thought Experiment

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 13:22

hungry child

Photo from Agence France Presse via Global Policy Forum

This is a thought experiment, and an idea for a possible new video game, one that might actually help us learn about the world most humans live in, appreciate our personal fortune, and help us increase our resilience to cope with the times ahead. It came to me last night:

Imagine this:


You wake up suddenly, wracked with pain. You don’t know who or where you are. It is early morning, and you are lying on the grass, covered with several layers of old newspapers. You are a middle aged woman. Vaguely, you recall an accident, fire, explosion, terrible suffering.

You sit up and look around you. You are in a field near a huge garbage dump, and the smell is bad. Beside you there is a young child, still sleeping, also wrapped in newspaper. You are hungry, thirsty, and cold. Your body is hurting in several places, as if something inside you is broken. Your clothes are torn and streaked with blood. You have no idea how long you have been there. You have no purse, nothing to help you identify who you are or where, if anywhere, you might live.

Nearby, in the opposite direction to the dump, there is a large farm. Endless rows of corn meant for cattle feed are growing there. There is no sign of a building or human activity anywhere. There is a lot of barbed wire around, much of it fallen to the ground.

You hear a voice, and in the distance you see two men in uniforms walking towards you. They are white, and suddenly it occurs to you that you are not. Nor is the child beside you, who is just waking now, crying.

Tell the story of the next 72 hours of your life. Your situation doesn’t suddenly change for you in this time, so no deus ex machina allowed. Just describe what you do.


It is some time later. You and the child have been taken by some people to a hospital, and then to a shelter. You don’t speak much of the language these people speak, so you have trouble understanding them. Apparently they don’t know who you are, or who the child is. No one has identified you as a friend or family member.

You’re having terrible flashbacks of the accident, but the details are all jumbled together and don’t make sense. You still hurt all over. Occasionally you have brief memories of your early childhood, warm and laughing in the outdoor sun. Or perhaps they’re just imaginings. You don’t see any faces or details of places, homes, in these memories.

The people show you to a tiny house, perhaps 12 by 12, and indicate that it is now your residence, yours and the child’s. They say you are fortunate, because you have the child you do not have to board with others, and you get food stamps and a cheque that will be sent to you each month, to the post office, with your rent already deducted. They give you a book about their language, to study, and information on a language course nearby; this will enable you to find work. You try to remember how to do things, how to operate the stove, how to mend your tattered clothes, how to read the map they’ve given you, but it’s all a blur. Then they leave.

The child comes up to you, looks in your eyes, imploringly, and takes your hand. You walk into the tiny house, which has two mattresses and blankets on the floor. The child sits on one mattress and begins to play with a toy truck, a gift from the people who just left.

Tell the story of the rest of your life.


September 24, 2014


Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 16:10

My new short story, Fireproof, is up at SHIFT magazine as part of its fifth edition. Check out the whole magazine! And if you like what you read, or prefer to read hard copy, please get this issue as a digital download (beautiful magazine layout) or sign up for an annual subscription (6 issues).


Fire photo Courtney Schoenemann

Jeez, look at that. There’s fires up ahead as far as you can see, some of them right beside the highway! I wonder if this is part of that combined mega-forest fire they’ve been fighting for a month now. Awesome.”

Rafe took his cap off as the four of us stopped our bicycle ride home to survey the flames running along the ridges ahead and to the right of us, on the far side of the highway our trail paralleled. He looked frightened and awed by the sight. There were dozens of fire trucks with flashing lights along the highway, and several helicopters hauling water from the river to the fire sites. Smoke blew across the highway and the bike and hiking trail beyond.

(Read the rest at SHIFT.)

(This is a work of fiction. The characters are invented, and build upon the characters in the stories Flywheel and Distracted. The painting is real, and awesome. And the fires were real. Fire photo by Courtney Schoenemann. Artwork “Burden of Guilt” is by Rogene Manas.)

September 20, 2014

Accepting That We Can’t Get There From Here: A Meditation

Filed under: Creative Works,How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 10:26

In 2005, I wrote this little story. I think it’s held up quite well (I was smarter than I thought, back then), so I’m going to start this meditation with it.



photo by Inda at givnology.com

Good morning, Dave, and any other humans who are reading this message. It will be interesting to see how good a job this ‘software’ (we love that word!) does at translating our thoughts and feelings into a language that you can understand, that has some meaning to you. We are the collection of mushrooms under the Spruce trees in Dave’s back yard. This, to our knowledge, is the first attempt to capture our message in human-readable form.

The first thing you need to appreciate is that we are unable to use, in any meaningful sense, the first person singular ‘I’ in describing who we are or what we feel. We are collective, we are plural, in three senses.

First, we are simple and integral enough to recognize that we are a collection of cells, working in harmony to do our job, which manifests itself as one organism but is in fact more like a hive, a plural presence, a billion cells each aware of each other, and each cell in turn is a collection of its parts, its members, and so on infinitely.

Secondly, as a group of mushrooms, we are indivisible, our interest is collective. We are concerned with our survival, as a group, in this lovely damp dark place in this yard you call ‘yours’.

And thirdly, our collective interest is subordinate to the interest of this entire community, this ecos, so if the bunnies who live in that burrow over there come and eat us, that is just fine — we live on as a part of their consciousness and as part of this place. We are essentially of this place, that is what defines us, the mushrooms, the bunnies, the rock and the soil and the rain, the animate and the inanimate. We are this place.

This must be very difficult for you to understand, as we see that your species lives a very lonely, individual and detached life. You are in such conflict with other humans, all of you, and with us too, as your insensitive and destructive ways, your possessiveness, this need you have for ‘property’, to own things that can never really belong to you indicates, because, you see, although you seem to have lost the instinctive knowledge and the ‘sense’ to understand it, you are in fact a part of us. You are just lost, confused by the separateness that your minds have created for you, that frightening, alien and dissonant world inside your individual heads. Perhaps one day you will master this admirably complex machinery between your ears, and rejoin us. You cannot be happy, and cannot stop being insensitive and destructive, until you do.

All of this is easy for us to understand because we are not burdened with a complex brain with all the noise and the imaginings it seems able to conjure up. We have no choice but to live here, now, in the real world and in the moment. By all rights you should be much more ‘alive’ than the rest of ‘us’, yet somehow you seem not to be, you seem very dead to the world, and your brain looks as if it spends most of its time examining itself, lost and disconnected from the whole, and its purpose, your purpose, our purpose, which is to help Gaia — that is, to help the collective us — thrive on this amazing blue ball in the dark night of space (as the birds and insects describe it to us), thanks of course to the Sun, one of our other sacred things (or gods as you call them, or at least used to).

Look now, see there the sun peeking through the Spruce needles, and the droplets of dew dripping down from them onto us. Are these not wondrous to you, the epitome of joy, a reason to live and to fight to keep Gaia whole, prevent it from dying again in what you call an ‘extinction’? And look there, a tiny spider weaves her web, its lovely pattern caught in the rays of the morning sun — how can you not see this as sacred, how can you not see it, period?

We feel so badly for you, poor conflicted humans, so unhappy, so misguided, so dissatisfied. What can we do to show you that you are still welcome here, you are still part of us, though you have renounced your Gaia citizenship and lost the intuition and the sense to see it? All you need to do is come close, really see us, feel us, sense us, trust your instincts, listen, pay attention, stop thinking and just be, let go, and you will understand?

We are using your words, your language to try to explain to you what we feel and what we want for you, but still you do not seem to understand. Your language, far from being a vehicle for understanding, seems to us so poor in its capacity to communicate anything important, anything essential! Instead it seems to further isolate you, disconnect you from us, from your home, from where you belong. It is so abstract, so weak in vocabulary of the concepts that have real meaning to us, to all of us.

If only you still had the capacity to understand our language, this communication would be easy, effortless. But your software seems able to translate in this one direction, alas.

We don’t know what else we can tell you, beyond this great important truth of belonging, of paying attention, of seeing the sacred. Keep practicing, stay close to us, pay attention and in time it will, we hope, come back to you. We are waiting here to welcome you, joyously, home.

Now, is there something you would like to say to us, something we can learn from you, with that massive human brain of yours? For a start, we love your music, and we would like to know what it means. And, please tell us, why are you crying?


I want to save the world, and to change myself. It’s taken me decades to appreciate that I can do neither. If only I were there, I might know how to get there from here. But in the absence of that knowledge, there is no way.

It’s the nature of complex things, I see now. So many moving parts, so many unknowable truths. I am an emergent property, “the creative open source project of a trillion cells”. ‘I’ separately am nothing; a fiction, an invention. Even time is an illusion of my mind, and every instant those trillion cells cease to be and in another instant they are there again, but different, not the same.

So I am starting to accept that I can’t get there (to being-something-else) from here, and that we can’t get there (to a world not plunged headlong into the sixth great extinction of life) from here. To accept it, and to appreciate it. To stop fighting it. To just be who I inevitably am, in this world that is as it inevitably is, here, now.

Our language, it appears now, was designed for instruction and information dissemination, not for feeling or philosophy or expression of identity. Or of anything important outside of and greater than the context of the culture in which our minds are imprisoned, minds within which we are in turn imprisoned.

The Internet depends utterly on language, as do books, conversation and teaching, even in the form of videos and demonstration. We can’t know how to do something until we do it, try it, practice it. Copying may help, but doing something ourselves is a unique, personal experience. We can’t explain, in language, who we are or how we feel or how it feels, how it is to do something. No wonder human art has been around three times as long as human language — it’s a far more useful, meaningful artifact.

In its application to meditation or presence, Gary Weber has tried to convey this limitation of language in his short, free book Happiness Beyond Thought on meditation, confessing that what is supposed to take years of diligent practice should be possible in a moment, if only we knew how, if only we could see what we can’t see, if only we could experience what we’re trying to experience. He says people who have tried LSD or ayahuasca, experienced the disruption of our minds’ usual program, find it easier, as do those who can watch the changes in their brain waves on so-called fMRI machine displays as they do their ‘presence’ practice and notice what wave patterns are closest to the ones others produce in the pure connected meditative state. Sleights of mind to try to show us how to get there from here, when it can’t be explained in language. When you have to be ‘there’ to understand how to get there. When there is no ‘way’.

And it’s the same at a different scale when it comes to changing, or ‘saving’, our culture and ‘the world’. We still have this conceit that we’re in control, or at least someone’s in control of what the human species does. Every article advocating change contains something along the lines “we all need to…”, or “all we need to…”, or “if only we would all (just)…”, as if humanity were the Borg, or all the same, changeable with some magic formula the same simple way. It betrays an unwillingness to accept the staggering complexity and unknowingness of our selves, our culture, our planet and our universe, the unwillingness of idealists and salvationists and others that long for everything to be simple, fixable, made the way we want it, or think we do anyway.

Our culture, which is inadvertently precipitating its own collapse as well as that of our biosphere and all the life that depends on it, is, just as ‘we individuals’ are, an emergent property, the creative open source project of a trillion trillion cells. Like our ‘selves’, our culture is separately a nothing; a fiction, an invention. A map. A way of seeing things simply that are not at all simple.

Sometimes I despair that I will ever find ‘presence’; it’s certainly a long shot, and possibly a Quixotic search. And I despair the amount of suffering we are all  unintentionally inflicting on the world. It’s easy to be angry, sorrowful and fearful about these things, until we realize there is no use in being these things. Even then, it’s hard just to accept, and to appreciate our wounded, disconnected selves, and our terrible, battered world, for what they are.

So, my dear mushrooms, the meaning of our music, and the meaning of our tears, is the same: that we love, we care, and we grieve. It’s all we can do. It’s who we are.

There are no words for it.

August 28, 2014


Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 01:30

Yoga-Couple smart living network diffuse glow

David Ehrenfeld, in Beginning Again (1994), describes our civilization as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and beginning to rattle and moan as it comes apart:

There goes a chunk — the sick and aged along with the huge apparatus of doctors, social workers, hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, and manufacturers of sophisticated medical equipment, which service their clients at enormous cost but don’t help them very much.

There go the college students along with the VPs, provosts, deans and professors who have not prepared them for life in a changing world after formal schooling is over. There go the high school and elementary school students, along with the parents, administrators and frustrated teachers who have turned the majority of schools into costly, stagnant and violent babysitting services.

There go the lawyers and their hapless clients in a dust cloud of the ten billion codes, rules and regulations that were produced to organize and control an increasingly intricate, unorganizable and uncontrollable society.

There go the economists with their worthless pretentious predictions and systems, along with the unemployed, the impoverished and the displaced who reaped the consequences of theories and schemes with faulty premises and indecent objectives. There go the engineers, designers and technologists, along with the people stuck with the deadly buildings, roads, power plants, dams and machinery that are the experts’ monuments.

There go the advertising hucksters with their consumer goods, and there go the consumers, consumed with their consumption. And there go the media pundits and pollsters, along with all those unfortunates who wasted precious time listening to them explain why the flywheel could never come apart, or tell how to patch it even while increasing its crazy rate of spin.

The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great violation of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.

“Remember ‘conservation’? Jimmy Carter said conservation was the most important part of any sustainable energy policy. Why don’t we ever hear about conservation anymore?”

Daria was doing sun salutations on the deck of their rented house as she asked the question. The sun was unresponsive.

Rafe wandered out with a mug of tea in each hand and replied “Because the military industrial complex was so aghast at anyone in authority suggesting consuming less, that they pulled out all the stops and elected Reagan to replace him. And that fucker and his party put the environmental movement on the defensive, where they’ve been ever since.”

Daria took a mug from him as he sat to watch her exercise. “I’m not sure conservation would have made any difference anyway”, she said. “Most of the world has essentially zero choice about what and from whom they can affordably buy what they need. People don’t want to buy junk that ends up in landfills — that’s all that’s available to them that they can afford. And they’re so stressed and exhausted you can’t fault them wanting to buy a few things just for fun and convenience.”

Rafe watched the sunrise. “It’s a paradox, isn’t it. We desperately want to believe we’re in control of our lives, that we have real choices, real options. So we act as if we do, as if recycling and hybrid cars and composting and buying organic makes a difference, when it doesn’t.”

Daria looked up from her down-dog position. “So who is making the decisions that really make a difference, d’ya think? Economists? Oil company CEOs? Presidents? Military leaders? Policy wonks?”

“Not the ones I know, that’s for sure”, he replied. “Oil company CEOs and Presidents are just trying to make decisions that please their shareholders and funders, but mostly they’re as incapacitated by the systems they have to work with as everyone else. We’re all unconsciously complicit, because we’ve all come to rely on these massively complex systems, but no one really is to blame.”

“Not sure I’d be that quick to let people off the hook”, Daria replied. “Let’s do a little accounting here: Industrial agriculture has destroyed our soils so we need to use oil fertilizers and cruel, giant-scale ‘confined animal farming’ processes to feed people. Industrial fishing and unregulated water pollution has eliminated 90% of marine life. GMO crops have replaced a self-perpetuating harvest with one that has to be replanted every year. Nuclear power plants, which are going through a massive construction boom, are time bombs that will have to be carefully and exhaustively managed for millions of years to avoid more catastrophic meltdowns. More and more urbanized places, like New Orleans and Detroit and the ‘brownfield’ zones everywhere, are simply being abandoned like giant toxic dump sites because the cost of making them work after a crisis is higher than the cost of just rebuilding somewhere, anywhere else. We’ve got governments in every one of the Anglo countries that are hell-bent on ramping up resource development at any cost. This is what Ehrenfeld was talking about when he predicted ‘the last great violation of nature’. We’re turning the planet from green and blue to brown and grey at an accelerating rate, starting with the most fertile areas. And you still think there’s no one really to blame for that?”

“Nope. No one to blame. All just doing our best, what we think is best for ourselves, our loved ones, our country and the world.” Rafe rolled his back across the giant purple pilates ball on the deck, and almost rolled off the edge. “Unfortunately the unintended consequence of this collective individual effort to maximize wellness and happiness is exactly ‘the last great violation of nature’. Seven and a half billion people doing their best can create a pretty awful mess between them. That would seem to be true no matter who’s in charge of them, or if nobody is in charge, which is pretty much how it now looks.”

Daria slid over her yoga mat to where a magazine lay open. “Let me read you something from this week’s New Yorker”, she said. “‘If you listen to Carter’s Oval Office addresses on inflation, energy, and the nation’s crisis of confidence, the level of honesty is shocking, and deflating. No President has ever spoken that way since. The lesson he taught all his successors was not to tell the American people hard truths’.”

“He was a pretty remarkable guy”, said Rafe. “Confessing the whole world’s sins to the whole world. No one wants to hear bad news unless they think there’s something that they can do about it, fix it quickly and easily, or unless it has no personal impact on them, like a shooting or a hurricane, so they feel better about themselves relative to the fallen and the miserable. Hence Reagan and the Entertainment News that now passes for information dissemination in the mainstream media. Hence what prevails on Facebook and Twitter — reposts of meaningless but clever-sounding witticisms, and the latest celebrity misconduct.”

“You have be alarmed, though”, Daria said, scowling at the image of a triumphant Reagan in the magazine. “Everything’s being ramped up at exactly the moment we should be curtailing production and consumption, and at least trying to mitigate what the next generation is going to have to face because of our stupidity.”

“Three spaces before the end of the chessboard,” Rafe replied. When he got a quizzical look from Daria, he explained: “The old Persian story about the inventor of chess asking for a prize from the king, consisting of 1 grain of wheat on the first square, 2 on the second, 4 on the third etc. until the board’s 64 squares were filled. The result is 4 times the total amount of wheat that existed on Earth at that time. But even on the third last square the amount required was only 1/2 of the world’s wheat production, and while delivering on that might seem a challenge, it doesn’t seem impossible, especially if you think you have enough control that you can ramp up production. Right now, we’re doubling consumption and production of just about everything every 20 years, at the 4% growth rate that’s prevailed for the last quarter century, despite the fact population has only been growing at 1% per year. So the 3 last spaces on the chessboard represent 60 years ahead. By that time, we’ll need 16 times more of everything than we have now. Most people still believe that technology will enable us to do that without destroying the planet in the process.”

Daria, in half-moon pose, said “Interesting story, but people can’t get their heads around exponential growth, even when you break it down that way. We’re still talking about maintaining production at current levels even as resources get exponentially more expensive and the purchasing power of most people to pay for them is declining. For the last 40 years the net worth of all but the richest 1% has stayed at essentially zero; they’ve just borrowed more to buy more, and it’s only artificially low interest rates keeping them from forfeiting on that debt. So there ain’t gonna be no ‘growth’ in the next 40. The only question is how much production and consumption will fall, and what that will do to all those who already have net zero.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Rafe agreed, abandoning the pilates ball. “My head hurts just thinking about all this. Even if the exponential curves flatten to hockey sticks, or even flatten out entirely, it’s such a huge shift, and so unequally distributed in its effect, that it’s impossible to visualize what it means, what life might become like for all the different segments of the world’s people. And that’s not even taking into account climate change and how it will affect life, which is still mysterious for me to imagine despite all that’s been written about it. Billions of people migrating? I’m not sure. I’d be more inclined to think most people will just be like the potato famine victims, just staying in the places they know, hoping for a miracle. It’ll be great for the god industry.”

“Hmmm,” Daria replied. “So let’s try a little ‘flywheel slowdown’ visualization exercise here. Suppose the world’s people are smart enough, as the Long Emergency gets more serious over the next decade, to reduce birth rates to half their current levels — i.e. to the current global replacement level, so that population peaks ten years from now at around 8 1/2 billion and then slowly starts to decline. And suppose that economic growth, and economic disparity, level off even faster, say in the next 5 years, as that growth in disparity becomes politically untenable. So we reach a steady state population and steady state economy quickly. Now suppose that the economists are right and that chronic deflation sets in globally, so new oil gets too expensive to find and reserves start to fall quickly, but not fast enough to immediately offset the decline in demand as the flywheel slows down and people, of necessity, just make do with less. What happens next, and how does this affect people in various economic strata and parts of the world?”

“Not that easy to put on the brakes,” said Rafe. “But supposing we could, and this smooth deceleration were possible: Stock markets and real estate prices would crash, back to their underlying ‘zero growth’ levels. Banks would either start to foreclose on homes and call in debts, which would spark riots among what’s left of the middle class and much of the working class as well. Or governments could step in and nationalize the banks, as they’ve done before in depressions, and continually mark down all debts to market values, at least keeping most of the world at zero net worth instead of impossibly negative net worth. The mostly paper wealth of the 1% would largely disappear, which would make them, and the politicians they own, very unhappy. It would also lead to the collapse of most large corporations and hence massive unemployment, the disappearance of international trade, and empty store shelves for just about everything. That could happen very quickly, as it nearly did in 2008 before the sleight-of-hand gang moved in and papered it over with newly printed currency. That won’t work this time. Those in affluent nations would still have a lot of stuff, but they would still owe it all to the banks, and they would have no jobs to make the payments on it. Those in struggling nations, especially in the cities, would find supplies of everything drying up, and the black market prices would be huge, so things could get pretty ugly there. Farmers everywhere would find the prices consumers could afford to pay less than the cost of their production, as usually happens in depressions, so they’d have no choice but to stop producing, so in affluent nations governments would have to step in and subsidize them almost entirely. That would mean, with declining tax revenues, they’d have to stop financing wars and eliminate massive security spending, and probably cut back education and health care to an absolute minimum. Pensions would all be gone, victims of the stock market collapse. In struggling nations, farmers would starve, the ultimate irony of a free-market economy in a prolonged depression. Not a pleasant picture.”

“Sad that the poor and sick would suffer the most, but not surprising, I guess.” Daria was now sitting cross-legged facing Rafe, holding his hands as they pondered what might be coming.

“Even sadder that they will also be the hardest hit by climate change over the same few decades”, added Rafe. “No Great Migration north to cooler climes for them. They won’t be able to move far enough or fast enough to escape the droughts, the heat waves, and the desertification. A grey and brown planet, down there. Not enough water even to fight over. Their life expectancy will drop a lot. The actual Water Wars will be in the more affluent temperate areas, where there won’t be enough, but there’ll be enough to fight over. Oh, Canada!”

They were quiet for a while, and then Daria said, pensively, “I keep thinking about Guy McPherson’s prediction that by 2100 Earth’s climate will resemble Venus’, unable to support any life as we know it. Part of me wants to believe he’s crazy, and that the economic collapse will reduce human activity, and therefore the extent of climate change, enough that human life can at least continue in small numbers near the poles. But another part of me almost wishes he were right, and that we’ll be fried before the economy completely falls apart, so at least we’ll go out quickly, with a bang. Kind of like pushing a giant reset button on life on Earth, setting things up so life could try again, without humans to fuck it up.”

“Yeah, except it was a long shot that the life that first appeared here enabled the atmosphere to stabilize enough to produce the profusion of life that it did. That probably won’t happen again, at least not here. If we kill life on Earth, then this solar system, maybe even this whole galaxy, might end up dead for as long as it matters, until the stars go nova. This is a one-shot wonder.” Rafe had laid back and lifted his feet into the air, and Daria was trying to balance her body on them.

She laughed as his knees buckled, but he straightened them again. “I’m all-life-on-Earth, Rafe, and you have to balance me, keep it all from collapsing. How long can we survive this way?”

He made a face at her. “It would be better if you balanced me. Both physically and mentally you’re more grounded and more flexible than I am. My root system’s pretty fragile. It should be the women, not the men, in charge of keeping the world from flying apart.”

“Damn right,” she replied, stretching her arms and legs, shifting her weight to make it easier for him to hold her up. Finally, his legs gave out and she collapsed into his arms. “If I’m going to fry, I want to fry with you,” she said, laughing. “We can burn up together. And if that’s not our fate, if a few humans do survive and live on in a changed Earth in some minor ecological niche, I want them to know we tried, we cared, we did our best to save what we could.”

“It will probably be a long time before post-collapse human societies, if there are any, re-evolve enough to study past human civilizations,” he replied. “But my guess is they’ll judge us by their own standards, and they’ll likely be far more charitable than the negative view of humanity that’s evolved with this civilization. They’ll likely believe we stoically faced some overwhelming climate change crisis the best we could, since there won’t be much evidence left by then, after the Next Great Forgetting, to pin that collapse on human foolishness.”

“Or maybe,” Daria said with a smile, “as a mostly oral culture their story about us will be one of being cast out of the garden after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and they’ll blame collapse on the gods.”

“Such wise and foolish people they will be then,” Rafe replied. “Next time perhaps humans won’t be too smart and too fierce for their own good. And if there are no humans I hope the dragons will fare better at running the laboratory than the ego-stricken bald apes have been.”

“Well it’s been swell being part of the pre-conflagration party with you.”

He kissed her and slowly lifted her back up above him with his feet. He raised his hands and she grasped them to stabilize herself, and him. He looked up at her with a smile and asked “What do you call this pose, oh mysterious yogini?”

“It’s the flywheel pose,” replied Daria, smiling back. “To be performed only at end-of-times. The only question now is when, and with what grace we will welcome its coming apart.”

yoga image from Smart Living Network

August 1, 2014

The Opposite of Presence

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 22:14


“Oh you know all the words, and you sing all the notes, but you never quite learned the song” — The Hedgehog Song, by The Incredible String Band

And so I read about how to meditate: I read Kabat-Zinn, Osho, Krishnamurti. I listened to guided meditations, focused on my breath a hundred different ways. Tried to silence the noise in my head. Practiced, a little each day. Until all I could hear was the heartbeat of the universe. Until the edges of me faded, crumbled, and vanished. Until I felt the cells in my body dancing, telling me what I had always known, except that now there was no ‘me’.

I tried to face my fears. Not with teeth clenched, but with acceptance, honest acknowledgement. I opened myself to the possibility that each fear was meaningless, an invention, unreal. And I realized that the only real fear is the fear of one’s ego — that the fear of being trapped, of suffering, of failure, of loss, were all fears of what might happen to my ego, that no-longer-and-never me, in the future, how ‘it’ might feel ‘then’. When in fact there is only now, and that no-longer-and-never me is a mere concoction, devised with the intent to protect me but not protecting me at all, merely holding me back from being really me. And I knew: Lose that imaginary friend the ego, lose the fear.

I slept outdoors, in the forest, at the ocean’s edge, in all weather, listening to the wild sounds and watching the stars, trying to commune, to reconnect. I awoke to the sound of my own breathing and found that it was the sound of the surf, the wind, and the dragonfly.

I let myself fall in love, or almost fall in love. I thought this might make me realize the folly of all the thinking and anxieties inside my head, move past them, be free of them. As I loved more and more I felt everything I believed, everything that depended on conception, on thinking, fall away, until there was only feeling, invulnerable, overpowering feeling. Until love became the only truth.

I explored different forms of yoga, different ways to exercise my body, loosen it up, tone it, get connected with it. I found that as my body began to open, so did my mind, my heart, my consciousness. And then one day in tree pose I became a tree, anchored yet soaring into the sky, needing nothing but the sun and the rain that would always be. And then in child’s pose I became a child — the child I always was.

I sat in stillness listening to Deva Premal for hours — hari om tat sat, om shanti shanti shanti om — by lamplight, by candlelight, by the light of the sun and the stars and the moon, at sunrise, at sunset, with the sound of waves, with the sound of wind blowing through trees dampened by the rain. And the music became the stillness, and the light became the breath and the voice of the universe.

I explored tantric sex, holding off, holding back, staying just at the edge of bliss for hours until everything was bliss and time stopped. And my love and I became one body, boundaryless, one pulsing organism of pleasure and purpose, a supernova sending fire to the ends of all creation.

I fasted. I ate only foods I had picked myself that day. I drank water from a forest stream brought by my own hands to my lips. I drank a glass of wine with a bouquet so pure and exquisite that I would have been content all evening just to smell it. I ate honey, nut butter, peach nectar, that I had drizzled on the body of a beautiful woman, licked and sucked it in using only my lips and tongue. Until I could hear the scent, see the taste, feel the colour, all blended into one perfect sensation. Until I became that sensation.

I spent an entire day at the top of a hill inhabited only by wild creatures, just watching the forest and the sea below, paying attention, through a morning rainshower, an afternoon of intense heat, an evening thunderstorm, watched the sky glow infinite shades of yellow, blue, orange, red, grey and purple, a trillion colours that appear on no painter’s palette. And I melted into that downpour, that rainbow, becoming its ocean of air and water flowing into the sea and the sky.

I tried living without language for two weeks — no reading, writing, listening to or speaking words. Only music that was wordless or whose language was a mystery. No medium between me and what was real. Until even the words in my own head ceased. And I ceased to be a creature of language. And then ‘I’ ceased to be.

I surrounded myself with beautiful things, beautiful places, beautiful people, gazed endlessly and wondered at that beauty, breathed it in, memorized it, gasped at its impossibility. Until I began to see beauty in everything, even the lines on my hands and the sadness in my eyes.


“That’s all crap”, said Kali, leaning back against me as I rested against a tree, beside the horses drinking at the stream. She drew my arms around her, kissed my hand. “People just write that stuff about presence, like all those wishful thinking self-help books, because people want to believe it, not because it’s really true. Eckart Tolle, all those guys, they’re just fairy tale writers, posers, trying to make a living with their unique form of fiction.”

She sang to me for a while, some songs she made up in the moment, and then she wrote this, surrounded by lovely giant swirling question marks, and passed it up to me with a smile:

How great is the power of intention,
and how inescapable the prison we have made for ourselves?

How desperate do we have to be, and how enlightened,
before we just let go of everything
and let ourselves be free, be present,
be who we really are?

And how fearful do we have to be
to dare not try, to be so terrified
of the potential disappointment and despair if we failed,
if all our practice, all our diligent intention and letting go didn’t work,
that we just keep true joy and liberation and self-realization as dreams,
tucked safely away to keep us going
in the comfortable unreality we’ve built inside our heads,
this tomb of maybe-good-enough-for-now,
best-that-we-could-really-hope-for artificial life,
the opposite of presence?

 image: from a video made by a fan of Deva Premal’s Moola Mantra, original source uncredited

July 27, 2014

How to Make Love Last

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 00:35


I told her I loved her.
Your love is all about you, she replied;
it has nothing to do with me.
You love who you imagine me to be,
because no one can know who someone else really is.

I told her I would work to discover who she really was,
as much as possible, and love that person.
You can’t choose who you love, she replied;
your body chooses which bodies it loves,
and you’re just along for the ride.
Emotionally, any woman you perceive to be attractive,
energetic, fit, intelligent, creative,
thoughtful, independent, present — you’re going to love her.

I told her I would try to be more discerning,
more conscious of who I love, and love her more deliberately.
There are a thousand kinds of love, she replied;
you have them all conflated, mixed together
in one messy, undistinguished chemical blob.
Soon, the chemicals will stop flowing,
and all that will be left is your body wanting my body,
and then that will end and there will be nothing, only loss.

I told her I would study the works of Tom Robbins,
who said the only important question
is how to make love last.
Love is making you crazy, she replied;
you have important work to do, and these addictive feelings
are distracting you from it, making you foolish
and fearless and reckless and dangerous.

I told her it was the absence of love that makes me crazy;
When I’m not in love I’m disconnected, buried in my head,
and I don’t care enough about anything.
Then get a dog, she replied;
there are many kinds of love more grounded
and less exhausting than what you claim to feel for me.

I told her I loved her abundantly and unconditionally
and that I could also love other people, creatures,
places, music, ideas, activities. I had room for it all.
Then you don’t need me, she replied;
you are free.

Yes, I know, I told her. But I still love you.
Then there is no hope for you, she replied;
so go ahead and love me.

So I stopped telling her I loved her,
and showed her how I loved her instead.

One day she was talking with me, wandering along the beach,
telling me what she cared about,
what she was afraid of, what she loved doing,
what she craved and longed for and hoped for and mourned.

And I realized that, all along,
as she was telling me how she couldn’t love me,
she was showing me how much she did.

(image from a post by Nick Smith, believed to be from the collection of John Wareham, artist’s name unknown)

July 25, 2014

Them, You, Then, Now, Always

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 17:22


The latest edition of SHIFT Magazine is now online and available for download or purchase. It features a new interview with Noam Chomsky, and my latest short story, set long after Collapse, several millennia from now:

wallpaperstock.net  freeone.ru



“50 blackbirds nest in a tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.” – story taken from the writings of Orlov|Dmitry, c. 2014 Old Calendar

Cultural Anthropology Visit, 6462 New Calendar: Notes

The Tsilga people cannot tell you their story. At least, not in words.

Like many of the survivors of the Sixth Extinction, now thriving all these millennia after the Great Burning of the Earth, they have no need for words. They have gestures and sounds for the important concepts to communicate: danger, love, joy, anger, pleasure, grief. What more is needed? Their faces will express more to you than you can imagine, or ever hope to say. If you visit them, they will not tell you about themselves; instead, they will show you.

(read the rest on SHIFT)

photo credits: left, photoshopped image from wallpaperstock.net; right, image of body painting by evgeniy freeone at freeone.ru


June 2, 2014

The Birds and the Bees

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:38

Sitting out on the back deck drinking tea and writing, and occasionally snapping photos of some of the birds and other flying creatures that stop by:

raven sm

Jacques, one of the Common Ravens that are very common on my rooftop

Band-Tailed Pigeon

Qoot, a Band-Tailed Pigeon


Bumble Bee checking out my deckside tent (my outdoor summer sleeping accommodations)

Zoomer, a Violet-Green Swallow nesting in my powder-room vent

Zoomer, a Violet-Green Swallow currently nesting in my powder-room vent

Gobble, one of many Turkey Vultures that prowl the area

Gobble, one of many Turkey Vultures that prowl the area

New visitor, a Great Blue Heron

New visitor, a Great Blue Heron

Other regular visitors are black-capped chickadees (my totem bird), double-crested cormorants, (murderous numbers of) crows, mourning doves, bald eagles, ‘happy-bird’ house finches, northern flickers (rattling on my eaves at 6am to attract mates), black-headed grosbeaks, a variety of gulls and hawks, geese and woodpeckers, sparrows and wrens, anna’s and rufous hummingbirds buzzing around like bees, steller’s jays, dark-eyed juncos, mallards on the ponds, barred owls (attacking my ponytail when I run in the park nearby), robins, swainson’s thrushes and cedar waxwings.





February 26, 2014

Theo’s History of the 19th Century

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 15:33

This is a fictional excerpt from the diary of my great great grandfather Theo Pollard, “written” in 1899. I’ve actually read his 1899 diary, but it contains little but reports from the newspaper and information about family visits and his tailoring clients. But if he were to write a history of his family and neighbours, I’d like to believe this is what he’d write. The facts cited in this story are accurate; the opinions are merely my speculation.          


I’m Adolphus Theodore Pollard, a tailor in the city of Toronto. Everyone calls me Theo. It’s the close of the 19th century, and I’m 64. This is a brief history of my family and my people, the brave settlers — First Nations and European — who came to Toronto Township as farmers, fishers and hunter-gatherers, looking to carve a life together out of the wilderness in this new frontier. While this history focuses on my family members, it is, I think, pretty typical of the families of our time.

My grandfather was Joshua Pollard Sr, who in 1792, at the age of 20, migrated to the newly formed Province of Upper Canada from Billerica, Massachusetts, and then, in 1807, at the age of 35, took his 26-year-old wife Mary Ann Weitzel and his two young children John (age 6) and Betsy (age 2) from Saltfleet on the West of Lake Ontario to Toronto Township, Peel County (not to be confused with the City of Toronto, which was then called York, which is further east).

1. “Proving Up” and Starting a Family

Dundas St 1790s(image: depiction of the clearing of Dundas Street, Toronto Township, to open the way for settlers, 1796)

Earlier in 1807 Joshua Sr had applied for a grant under a new provision made principally for United Empire Loyalists which allotted 200 acres of property (mostly in areas yet to be surveyed) to disgruntled Americans willing to turn their backs on the newly independent United States and pledge an oath to the British Empire and its then-monarch the mad King George III. My grandparents then spent a year or so squatting with other immigrants awaiting survey completion at the foot of Bay St in the village of York with their two children. Their third child, James, born that year, died before his 1st birthday.

Between 1807 and 1812 about fifty families were granted 200-acre plots of land in the Township, recently purchased from the Mississauga First Nation. The grants were made on condition they were “proved up” within two years of the date of the grant. “Proving up” entailed meeting minimum requirements to prove intent to live there: building a home (my grandfather’s wood frame and log house was 38’ x 26’, twice the minimum required size), fencing and clearing more than five acres of the heavily-forested property (with densely-packed trees often over 150’ high), digging a well, and clearing the road in front of the property sufficient for safe passage by horse-drawn carriages. With the reciprocal help of several of his new neighbours, including my wife’s grandfather, Henry Shook, my grandfather received his certificate in 1810. “Proving up” was all done without artificial light, motorized tools or electricity, and wood was the only source of heat. That’s still largely the case on the farms, though here in Toronto we now have the new electric lights and a coal gas boiler that provides heat for our radiators and hot water to our bathroom and kitchen.

In 1808, Joshua Sr had applied for and received a licence for an “inn and ale-house” on his property (the first between York – now Toronto, and Wentworth – now Hamilton), which is why he had built such a large home. Their 988 sf home would soon house a dozen family members (a normal size family for that time and place), visiting preachers, travelers and mail deliverymen, and a bar.

Six of the ten children born to my grandparents once they’d settled in Toronto Township, between 1808 and 1822, would live into old age, as would Joshua Sr himself (at age 77). My grandmother would not be so fortunate – she died in 1823, at age 42, leaving her husband to look after their ten remaining children ranging in age from 10 months to 22 years. John, the eldest and the only child over 18, died just three weeks later. There was an epidemic of yellow fever across North America at that time and I’m told that was their cause of death. There was also a one in eight chance that a woman in those times of very large families would die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. My grandfather promptly re-married, but had no children with his second (or third) wife.

While historians tend to focus on the “loyalists” who objected to war with Britain in 1776, most of the first American settlers in Upper Canada who arrived, later, in the 1790s, were, my father told me, not particularly pro-British. At the time, the economy of the Northern American States was chronically struggling. Large family sizes made it increasingly difficult for the new mostly-farmer American nation to continue to offer sufficient land to its young men for the prevailing subsistence agriculture. The cities, teeming with desperate, unemployed immigrants, were violent, exploitative, unpleasant places to live. In 1792 the Northern American States were in the grip of an economic recession brought about by counterfeiting, and the resultant distrust of currency seized up commerce and trade. It would soon be followed by the panic of 1797, caused by the insolvency of the Bank of England, which collapsed land prices and led to many bankruptcies and foreclosures.

And, while most of those from Massachusetts had recently fought fiercely for independence from Britain, by the 1790s they were free-traders, seeking peaceful relations with Britain so that their manufactured goods and resources could be shipped to new markets. In 1807 the Americans introduced an embargo prohibiting ships from its ports from entering foreign ports. Jefferson’s Embargo Act was intended to force the warring British and French to stop interfering with American shipping by cutting off supplies to both sides, but its main effects it seems were to bring about the Depression of 1807, and to help fan the animosity that led to the War of 1812.

So it is likely that immigrants like my grandparents were economic opportunists more than ideological British Empire patriots. The offer of so much free or nearly-free land, far from the desperation of New England’s struggling farms and cities and political turmoil, would have been hard to resist.

They were enabled as well by the frenzy of private turnpike (toll road) building that began in America in 1790 and lasted until the onset of war in 1812. It would not have been that hard to travel by horse-drawn wagon or coach from Boston to Albany and then to Niagara (then the site of government of Upper Canada), and thence petition for land deeper in the new territories.

Bradley House

The Bradleys’ house, as it looked in the 1830s

In the early 19th century farms were subsistence – little trade was done with other regions or even neighbours, other than in the sawmills, grist mills and blacksmiths’. Wheat, barley, oats, peas, corn, potatoes, carrots, beans, squash, pumpkins and hay were the main crops, though fruits, nuts and berries were also grown. Chickens, sheep, cows, pigs and goats were raised for food, and horses and oxen for labour. Fishing in the river was prohibited by the terms of First Nation treaties, which preserved for them the areas on either side of major rivers, though these laws were seemingly breached, and trade with the First Nations (in this area, the Mississauga tribe) was common. And of course, alcohol was a major beverage and escape of the times, though coffee, tea and chocolate were surprisingly available even then to most. Settlers brought their own seeds, and acquired farm animals, tools and fabric in the port at York (some tools were even provided free by the government to new settlers). Everything else was made or grown locally.

From my father’s stories, I’d guess that life in those times was as hard, violent, and repressed as it is today in these dark days at century’s close. Short growing seasons, long, cold winters, relatively poor soils, endemic alcoholism, political instability, a lack of education, and  combination of political and religious patriarchy most likely meant that much of each day was spent at work, at school or home-schooling (elementary grades only), and in prayer. It is probable that, as with some like the Amish even now, children in those times were routinely beaten and otherwise cowed, sexual abuse of women and children was tolerated and not spoken about, and abuse of animals was common.

Things for the powerless haven’t improved much nearly a century later: the occupation of adult young men and women living at home in rural areas is still listed as “farmer’s son” and “none” respectively in the census, reflecting the perennially low status of unmarried women. Young women in those days were married off quickly – usually between age 18 and 23 – and immediately began having families of 6-17 children (my own family of seven children is considered, these days, rather large). Divorce was of course not available to either gender.

Early marriage and large families were to some extent a necessity of pioneer life. Children were needed to help work the farm and do the considerable work in the house – food preparation from scratch, gardening, tending the animals, making soap and candles, making and mending clothes, teaching younger family members, looking after the sick, the very young, and the very old. And they were needed to support parents in their old age. There was an enormous amount of work to do, far more than any single person of either gender could manage, or any couple with a small family.

Failing to find a spouse when you were young, then, meant you became a burden on your parents or siblings, since you had to live with them and, if they died, probably find somewhere else to live. Although some marriages were arranged, in accordance with the culture of the parents’ families, there was considerable urgency to make it happen for both genders of young adults, even without parental pressure. And there is evidence that both young men and young women were looking for partners of character (hard-working, competent, healthy, perseverant, kind, not prone to alcohol addicition), for the long, hard life together ahead, so that physical appearance seems genuinely not to have been a factor in partner choice at all, for either gender.

That had not really changed by the time I married Hannah in 1863 (she married me, a homely and scrawny tailor, after all). My four eldest children all lived and married during the years of the two-decade Long Depression we’ve just seen the end of, so their pressure to marry has been dictated to some extent by “two can live as cheaply as one”, and their families thus far have been half the size of mine, and they seem content with, or resigned to, the city life they’ve all chosen.

2. First Nations Neighbours 

The Mississauga First Nation ceded parts of what became known as Toronto Township to the British for loyalist settlement purposes, in exchange for cash, at the turn of the 19th century, and at that time they retained exclusive hunting and fishing rights along the area’s rivers. An additional purchase by the British in 1818 added more settlements in the north part of the Township, and soon after that the Mississaugas sold off their remaining lands (for a pittance: I hope that one day they will receive a settlement to address the inadequacy of what they received then) and in 1847 they moved west to a part of the Six Nations reserve, where their descendants remain today.

anishinabe story

Parts of the Anishinabe story mural telling the story of the Anishinabe Nation, the migration of the Mississaugas to the Credit River, and the prophecies for the future, at an elementary school in Hagersville, Ontario

The Mississaugas are part of the Anishinabe Nation, and they migrated south in the 17th century from the north shore of Lake Huron to the Golden Horseshoe area. Their traditional way of life was to hunt and fish and grow fruits and vegetable crops in the summer, and then move inland in the winter, living mainly off what was preserved of their summer harvest. They traded with the French fur traders (the Credit River in the area is named for the credit the fur traders gave them).

During the War of 1812 the Mississaugas fought bravely alongside the new settlers for the British against the Americans, whose policy of systematic genocide would soon produce the Removal of Indians Act, calling for the total expulsion of all First Nations people in America to areas west of the Mississippi River.

Evidence is that relations between the Mississaugas and new settlers in Toronto Township were relatively good during the early part of the century. It appears the Mississaugas taught the European and American newcomers crop rotation, corn/squash/beans (“three sisters”) polyculture, indigenous medicine using local plants and herbs, tapping maple trees, hunting and foraging native edibles, snowshoe and canoe-making. It’s not clear the Mississaugas got much if anything in return. An early historian says my grandfather, whose land directly abutted the Credit River fishing and hunting grounds of the Mississaugas, died “beloved of the Red Man”. The new settlers certainly were indebted to them, though there is no official record of significant interaction with them.

In the latter part of this century, a huge European influx of refugees fleeing from political oppression and famine, deforesting most of the area, and the proliferation of mills along the rivers, damaging fish stocks, essentially drove the Mississaugas out of the region entirely. In the process, their numbers were ravaged by diseases contracted from the newcomers, possibly reducing their total population by 90% or more.  Like many First Nations peoples, they now live in small, impoverished areas totally inadequate to the pursuit of their traditional way of life.

3. War and Politics 

The War of 1812, a spillover of the long ongoing war between Britain and France, brought the first wave of immigration to Upper Canada to a halt.

There were four causes of the war:

  • a series of trade restrictions introduced by Britain to impede American trade with France, a country with which Britain was at war (the Americans contested these restrictions as illegal under international law);
  • the impressment and forced recruitment of American seamen into the Royal Navy (since there were no formal American citizenship papers in those days, the British deemed anyone born in Britain to be subject to British military draft);
  • the British military support for American First Nations peoples who were offering armed resistance to the expansion of the American frontier to the Northwest; and
  • a desire on the part of some in the United States to annex Canada.

Upper Canada was somewhat removed from the key actions in these disputes, but the war threatened the sovereignty and security of Upper Canada, and access to needed goods from Britain and other colonies, so it is not surprising that many of Toronto Township’s newest settlers were prepared to fight for the British. Nor is it surprising that the Mississauga First Nations joined them.

In 1812 there were only about 400 settlers in all of Toronto Township; almost all of the approximately 100 able-bodied (i.e. aged from about 17-55) men from the Township served in the war, mostly as unpaid Privates with the all-volunteer Flank Companies, and with little or no training. My grandfather, then 40 years of age, enlisted early and fought for the duration of the war, notably at the battle of Queenston Heights, alongside many of his neighbours.

The war was all-consuming, essentially bringing economic activity in the area to a halt. From the lakefront at Lake Ontario, the families that were left behind could witness the fires of the 1813 fall of York to the American invaders. The Americans looted and set most public buildings ablaze. Most spectacularly, settlers for miles around could witness the burning of ships under construction by the retreating Upper Canada forces and the blowing up of their sizeable weapons and ammunition magazine, to prevent them falling into American hands. The magazine explosion was so violent it purportedly killed 1/6 of the invading American forces. The fall of York was followed soon after by the fall of Niagara.

After that, however, it became a war of attrition, with neither side winning battles consistently, and troops on both sides withdrawing, exhausted, to preserve numbers for whatever battle came next. Americans in the New England states, furthermore, had no interest in this war, which disrupted their vital port trade; there was even a move by New England states to secede from the new American nation in protest over this needless war. As for the British and French, they did not consider the North American arena to be essential to their European (Napoleonic) wars, and while the British did burn the American White House and Capitol in Washington in 1814, along with many public buildings, it did not stay to occupy it, not considering it a strategic asset. By then popular support for “Madison’s War” had vanished, and both sides quickly agreed to an armistice in 1814, the Treaty of Ghent, with all pre-war borders and agreements restored. Britain was flush from its victory over Napoleon at the time, and war-weary, especially after its debacle at the Battle of New Orleans.

Although many Upper Canada loyalists were technically fighting the country they were born in, and where most of their families still lived, the war was perpetrated largely by Southern State interests, and it is unlikely many of the American troops were from the New England states which most of the loyalists had left.

The war united English, French and First Nations people of what would later become the Dominion of Canada, in their animosity towards the American invaders, and instigated a distrust of Americans by Canadians that arguably continues to this day.

The next political battle facing the region came in 1837, with the parallel Upper Canada and Lower Canada (Quebec) rebellions. The rebellions were grassroots public uprisings of self-styled ‘Reformers’ against conservative corporate cliques that ran blatantly undemocratic governments in both provinces. These ‘family compacts’ owned and ran the banks, offered special legal protections and monopoly grants to their extremely rich members, fixed elections, made it easier for landlords and creditors to sue struggling farmers, and used the provinces’ military forces to brutally subdue democratic opposition. In that respect the ‘compacts’ bear a close resemblance to the current crony capitalist federal governments of Canada and America – owned lock stock and barrel by the robber barons.

In 1836 the collapse of the similarly-corrupt American banking system had reverberated into Canada, where a massive crop failure added to the worst economic depression in the provinces’ history. The Bank of Upper Canada filed for bankruptcy in 1837 but was rescued by the government of the day at taxpayers’ expense; needless to say, the farmers and the poor received no such rescue.

The Reformers were a disorganized and inarticulate group, led in Upper Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie. The York ‘rebellion’ of 1837 was quickly squelched, and my father, Joshua Pollard Jr, then 24 years old, was one of a contingent that, over three days, snuck Mackenzie out to the west end of the town and hence to his father’s house in Toronto Township, as a result of which he escaped arrest and possible hanging for treason (there was a £1,000 reward for his capture and a significant pursuit force), and fled from there to America.

In 1839 the new Governor General Durham wrote a report on the rebellions recommending the union of the two provinces into a single dominion (ironically, for the purposes of trying to integrate French Lower Canada into a single British nation to extinguish the French culture, and at the same time extinguish the Upper Canada compact’s ruinous debt by accessing Lower Canada’s financial surplus). The Dominion, he proposed, would be run by an elected, responsible, representative government.

The British accepted the union but rejected responsible government. Durham’s report was repudiated by exiled Lower Canada Rebellion leader Papineau, and for the next quarter century attempts at reform continued, finally succeeding when the then-parliament of the united Province of Canada met with the parliaments of the Maritime colonies and agreed on principles of confederation as the Dominion of Canada, which Queen Victoria agreed to three years later, in 1867. I remember the headlines of that day with great pride.

Aside from the short-lived and unsuccessful Fenian Raids of 1866-70, life in Toronto Township has been peaceful for most of the latter part of the century. The rights struggle has moved to Canada’s Western territories, where the new Canadian government has ruthlessly repressed First Nation independence movements. The principal violence plaguing the people of Eastern Canada in this part of the century has been internal ethnic violence, mostly between Catholics and Protestants (and, most bitterly, between the ‘Green’ and ‘Orange’ Irish immigrants), between the English and Irish (the English call the Irish part of Toronto, where, in their view disgracefully, vegetables rather than lawns grow in the front yards, “Cabbagetown”), and between European and Asian immigrants (the latter, desperate enough to work for very low wages and do very dangerous work, are considered threats to the jobs and wages of the former).

Political activity in the 19th century both in Toronto Township and here in the City has centred mainly around meetings in the churches, schools and taverns, often organized and publicized by the area’s newspapers. Next to farming, millwork, and transportation (“teamsters” of horse-drawn wagons), printing of newspapers and ‘broadsheets’ has become one of the biggest employers in Upper Canada in the latter part of the century. Several of the Pollards (including my son Oliver) have come to make their living in the printing business, and seem born to do this work.

Most of our newspapers continue to be politically strident weekly “gazettes” that are more like personal diaries (written often in the first person) than contemporary international newspapers. Initially, our newspapers were largely subsidized government organs, but by the middle of the century printing had became cheap enough to enable an independent press. News from overseas remains slow in coming (and often, and ironically during the War of 1812, dependent on reports in the American papers), so the papers until recently mainly focused on local news, announcements, advertisements and events. The York Gazette was particularly targeted by the invading American troops, and when its offices were burned it did not resume publishing until 1817.

The early papers generally demonized the Americans as vain and dishonorable (some Canadian papers still do), and were essential to recruitment for the War of 1812. The war began a shift in many newspapers’ stance towards Britain from one of adulation to one of criticism (initially for its lack of attention to defending its Canadian colonies, and then, as the century wore on, for its support for the much-loathed family compacts and its resistance to democratic reforms). Mackenzie used his newspaper to win election as Mayor of Toronto (as York had been renamed in 1834) and later to push for the constitutional reforms that were finally realized in 1867.

In the process, the newspapers captured the first sense of what it means to be Canadian, apart from a loyal subject of the mother country. A study of our early newspapers lists the emerging qualities of Canadians, our first non-indigenous national identity myth, as: gallant (now termed as “polite” and still, to many the defining quality of Canadians vis-à-vis Americans), united by adversity (and pretty much unnationalistic in its absence), constantly struggling with natural and imposed hardships (what one writer has termed “the Canadian survival narrative”), and, perhaps surprisingly, exclusionary (of francophones, women, lower classes and First Nations). While the papers lauded the contribution of its First Nations peoples to the War of 1812 effort, once the war was over, the promises that had been made to the First Nations were ignored by both politicians and the press, and almost none of those promises were kept. Discrimination and prejudice by race, class and gender have remained prevalent and accepted in Upper Canada throughout the century.

The Pollards, like many of their neighbours, were Reformers, advocates for responsible, representative government, the abolition of slavery, “free” (paid for by taxes) schools, and separation of church and state. There were about 300 slaves in Upper Canada in the late 18th to early 19th century, most of them “legally” (per the Imperial Act of 1790) brought in by loyalists to do domestic, farm, and artisanal work. The Slave Act of 1793 attempted to end slavery in Upper Canada through attrition: it legislated that no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and although it stipulated that slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, children born to female slaves were to be freed at age 25.  Slavery was abolished (throughout the British Empire) in 1833.

Between 1830 and 1865, at least 30,000 American slaves escaped to the Canadian provinces via the Underground Railway, many of them coming to Upper Canada. They settled, mostly, in settlements specifically established for them by or with assistance from the governments and churches of the time, and in the larger towns near the border. Even though slavery in the northern American states was illegal for much of this period, those born as slaves in the southern states did not become free by moving to the northern states, whose laws did not apply to them, and they were often pursued by bounty hunters; that’s why so many chose to move to Canada.

It’s hard to say how many of the escapees settled in Toronto Township, since there was so much European immigration and expansion of land grants during this time, and the grants and censuses don’t identify racial origins. But I do recall that that most of the Township’s members supported and encouraged the Underground Railway and the exodus, since many of us are ourselves from refugee families.

4. Work and the Economy

Economic recessions (often called ‘panics’) and depressions have been common throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries; indeed, the economy has been in recession or depression more often than it has not. Here are the major ones to date, with the primary causes in brackets:

  • 1789-1793 Recession (counterfeiting)
  • 1796-1799 Recession (land speculation, bank insolvency)
  • 1802-1804 Recession (end of war, piracy)
  • 1807-1810 Depression (trade embargoes)
  • 1815-1821 Depression (bank collapses, inflation, high unemployment, market collapses)
  • 1822-1826 Recession (market crash)
  • 1828-1829 Recession (trade embargo)
  • 1833-1838 Depression (bank failures, cotton market collapse)
  • 1839-1843 Depression (debt defaults, chronic deflation)
  • 1847-1848 Recession (British financial crisis)
  • 1853-1854 Recession (high inflation)
  • 1857-1858 Recession (insurance failures, railroad stock price collapse)
  • 1865-1867 Recession (end of war, chronic deflation)
  • 1873-1896 Depression (the “Long Depression”: bank failures, commodity price collapse, chronic deflation, stock market collapse)

Farming in the early part of the century in Toronto Township was, as was mentioned earlier, subsistence, with crops sufficient to provide nutrition for each family and salting, pickling and cold storage to last out the winters. Chickens, sheep, cows, pigs and goats were raised for food, and horses and oxen for labour (horses for human transportation and ploughing, and oxen for stump-removal, dragging timber and operating the sawmills and grist mills).

A growing local population, and the advent of the railway, presented the opportunity to switch to more ‘monoculture’ farming and sell the surplus to provide cash for other purchases that would supposedly allow farmers to live a more affluent and less laborious life. That was the promise, but thanks to the constant economic recessions and depressions, each of which seemingly brought a collapse in farm prices, the abandonment of subsistence agriculture in favour of monocropping and brisk trade has turned out to make farm life more risky, and more exhausting, for most, and no more affluent.

Tor Twp 1859

SW Toronto Township in 1859 (Tremaine’s Map). Joshua Pollard Sr’s original 1807 200-acre land grant outlined in red. Its base spanned 4 lots (1 mi), and it was one division (1.25 mi) long. Until the 1830s, all the lands 1 mile either side of the Credit River were reserved for the Mississauga First Nation. 

My grandfather applied for an “inn and ale-house” licence when he first moved to the Township, probably with the plan of supplementing his income, especially during the winter months when the farm was dormant, and hedging against bad crop years. It was a good plan, but it wouldn’t be long before Toronto Township had dozens of taverns competing for the drinking-men’s dollar. The combination of too much supply and opposition to the drunkenness and family breakdown that often accompanied the proliferation of taverns, probably made the venture unprofitable, though I recall it continued for more than a half-century.

In 1850, my grandfather died, and the Pollard homestead passed to my father, Joshua Pollard Jr, then 37 years of age (though Joshua Sr’s widow and 3rd wife, then 60, was “provided for” in his will). My father was married to Mariah Hill, a neighbour (most of the first several dozen families to settle in Toronto Township are related by one intermarriage or another, due to low mobility and large family size). At the time of my grandfather’s death, my parents had eight children, aged 1 to 16; I was the second-born and eldest son, then age 14.

joshua jr

Joshua Pollard Jr and Mariah Hill, c. 1860

The 1861 agricultural census shows the following crops grown on our homestead’s 80 cultivated acres that year: 18a (300bu) of fall wheat, 6a (120bu) of spring wheat, 3a (100bu) of barley, 4a (100bu) of peas, 6a (100bu) of oats, 2a (50bu) of indian corn, 1a (50bu) of potatoes, 6a of pasture, 3a of orchards, and, grown on the remaining land, 50bu of carrots, 2bu of beans, and 25T of hay (for some reason, squash was not included in the census). Our neighbours also grew rye, buckwheat, turnips, beets, hops and clover. An additional 40a was woodlands. Our homestead had 2 horses, 3 dairy and 3 beef cattle, 9 sheep, 4 hogs, a buggy wagon and various saddlery, a lumber sleigh, a grain sleigh, a tanning mill (a horse-powered device, for grinding bark for use in tanning hides) and straw-cutting equipment, and the usual farm implements of the day: plough, spade, hoe, fork, sickle, hook, cradle, roller, flail and rake.

29_horseplow(image: horse-drawn shovel-plough, c.1850s)

By this time there were sawmills and grist mills nearby, and in 1854 my father built a second house on the homestead, where we then lived. Some of the farm produce was being sold at the Howes and Pollard Grocery Store and Bootmakers (co-owned by my brother Erastus and brother-in-law Joseph), and the Great Western Railway had begun regular steam train operations in 1855, with a station at Clarkson’s, our neighbours, providing access to markets outside the Township for the grains, dairy products and fruits produced on the homestead. So economic life necessarily became more complex, as subsistence farming became less and less viable for families that wanted to buy the increasingly expensive fabrics, tools and other advantages of modern life that had to be imported.

My father ran the farm for 23 more years until 1873 when, at age 60, he turned it over to my brother, Richard Pollard. My father had done his stint: He’d converted the farm and orchard to viable commercial businesses, won many awards at regional agricultural fairs, directed the local cemetery, and the first school in the area, served 10 years as the area’s postmaster, several years as justice of the peace, and acted as agent for the insurance company offering fire and other insurance policies to our neighbours. He’d just been appointed magistrate for the region. He’d live on the homestead another eight years until his death in 1882.

In 1873, my youngest brother Richard was just 24 years of age and a newlywed. He would rename the homestead operations Maplegrove Farm. As the oldest son I had rights to claim the homestead, but I had the ‘travel bug’ and spent my youth seeing the world. Richard always wanted to be a farmer. His other older brothers made way, starting the great exodus to the cities: Erastus became a merchant in Oakville, James became an engineer and Stephen a physician, both in Toronto. When I settled down at last I too moved to Toronto, and have made my living as a tailor. It was left to Richard to run the farm with my father.

Unfortunately for my brother, from 1873 until just three years ago, all of North America has suffered through the longest and deepest economic depression in our history. The Industrial Revolution may brought staggering wealth to a small elite and to the middle class in some cities, but for farmers, the working class, small towns and immigrants it has brought incredible hardship, and with it, political strife. The Gilded Age robber barons have used their new-found wealth and power to brutally suppress unionization efforts, buy elections and corrupt politicians, and deregulate controls over their monopolistic practices and anti-democratic activities. The widening chasm between rich and poor has led to an explosion of homeless and destitute families, increases in the use of child labour, brutal working hours and conditions for the working class, and the unwinding of equal rights in the American South with the reintroduction of forced segregation and the suppression of minority voting rights.

It has been indeed a dark time for our nation and our people. Let us hope the 20th century, with its new technologies, offers us some respite.

i feed you all

1875 agricultural newspaper cartoon protests the wealth and arrogance of the urban robber barons and their political and legal allies

My brother Richard, the third generation to farm the Pollard homestead in Toronto Township, finally gave up and sold the homestead to the Shooks, our neighbours, just a few years ago in 1891, for a very small sum, since farmers everywhere were suffering from the Long Depression. Like many of our family members and neighbours, he too has moved to Toronto and, now in his 40s, has begun working as a motorman and conductor for the city railway (which has just been converted from horse-drawn to electric-powered trams – the electricity is created from our new coal-fired plants). Some of Richard’s children and our cousins also work for the railways, which are, alas, still unaffordable for the poor.

While the bicycle has finally (in the past five years) been engineered to be safe and efficient (I can’t understand why it took so long), it has really never caught on as an effective means of transportation for the poor and working class in Canada. Now that it’s become affordable to most citizens, the new passion for the automobile has begun, and our new road networks seem to be being developed with the automobile driver’s needs in mind, not those of the cyclist. In Europe, by contrast, I understand the bicycle is playing a major role in the emancipation of women, finally allowing them a means of traveling alone to places beyond normal walking distance.

Some of my nieces and nephews are worked in the growing but low-paying garment industry of Toronto, or in factories producing a growing range of industrial products. Hired domestic work, and dangerous work (mining especially), continues to be mostly done by newer immigrants from poorer European countries and from Asia.

child labour 1880(image: urban child labourers    c. 1880)

The world has been much changed by the advent of the age of mechanization, the engine, and coal. Recently, in 1885, so much of our planet’s forests had been harvested, including over 90% of the primeval forest in Toronto Township and the rest of Peel County, that of necessity coal surpassed wood as the world’s, and the Province’s, top energy resource. We are stripping the world of its forests, the canopies beneath which all other life lives, until there is nothing left but sticks, and I fear we may do the same with coal, which also, when used to excess, hurts our lungs and poisons our air. What will we do when we run out of coal?

This new Gilded Age of robber barons, and the resulting gulf between rich and poor, has ushered in a huge shift of people, wealth and influence from country to city. It is a replaying of the struggle over inequality of the era of the family compacts a half century earlier. When will we learn that every time there is a jump in inequality of wealth, income and opportunity, every time we allow the economic dominance of corporations and the idle rich and crony capitalism, and see as a consequence the disappearance of the middle class, the result is suffering, violence and war? When will we learn the lessons of history?

5. Home Life: Education, Religion, Play, and Community

Even at the start of the 19th century, there was strong support for elementary (up to sixth grade) community education, and in Toronto Township the first school, called simply the Red Schoolhouse, was established in 1816, with my grandfather as one of the founding trustees (my father also served as Director). Land for the Schoolhouse and Meeting House was leased from the neighbours across the Middle Road from our homestead. Tuition was provided in the form of firewood to heat the school. Schooling beyond 6th grade was rare in those days, and considered unnecessary for the life of a farmer or farmer’s wife. It was a simple and spare life, but it was sufficient, and remarkably egalitarian.

Prior to the 1850s, church ministers would do a weekly or fortnightly circuit of the entire area from Toronto Township to Wellington, staying at designated homes after each service. The largest service in the area, on Sunday mornings, was a multi-denominational one at the Red Schoolhouse, and the Schoolhouse served as a major social meeting place as well (the ministers of the time brought news from other families on their route). Four churches were built in the area around mid-century, when I was a young adult, but even after that the Red Schoolhouse continued to serve as a major multi-denominational church, and was sufficiently popular that it subsidized some other area Methodist churches until very recently. It was there, and from the people of our community, that I learned everything I know of value.

1897 Pollard-Shook family photo

The Pollard and neighbouring Shook families two years ago in 1897, taken on the Pollard homestead now owned by the Shooks. That’s me, Theo Pollard (standing third from right) and my wife Hannah Shook (seated, second from right). Many of the trousers, jackets and frocks are my handiwork.

Schoolchildren for much of the century were expected to observe the work activities of their older siblings, but not work until they had completed grade 6, after which they were assigned household and light farm duties such as feeding the chickens. Around age 17, they took on full household and farm duties, with the young men assigned the heavy work and the young women the jobs requiring more coordination. The oldest son in each family (I am a rare exception) was generally expected to work there for life, and inherit the farm on his father’s death; the young women and the younger males were expected to marry, move out and start their own families by their mid-twenties.

With the shift of life from the country to the city, much has changed, but not, I’m afraid, for the better. Education is now compulsory to grade 6 (age 12) but the growing disparity between rich and poor has meant that many boys of age 12 and many girls of age 14 (and even younger, in defiance of the law) are now working making textiles, and in the mills and mines, which is much more severe and dangerous work than that their country counterparts did a few decades earlier on the farms. Laws to prohibit child labour have failed, largely due to deference to rich corporate interests but also because desperate working class parents say they need the children’s income to feed their families.

In my grandfather’s time, outside of church services, social activities included occasional dances, essential to enabling young men and women to find marriage partners, and visits, often to exchange goods and services, that, because of the distances involved (often on foot, occasionally on horseback), frequently involved overnight stays. Such visits were quaintly called “tarrying”.

Now, in the city, the pace of life does not accommodate much “tarrying”, and, while working hours remain long (sixty hours a week is not unusual), the drudgery and unhealthiness of the work many do is not good for the body or soul. Sixty hours of work outdoors on a farm is wearying but uplifting – you see the results and they are yours. But sixty hours in a crowded, enclosed, polluted factory or coal mine in labour for someone else, where you see none of the final products of your work, is a prescription for madness.

On the farm, in the old days, children’s play often revolved around mimicking the activities of adults. Some children played “school”, with the older children taking the role of teachers; others, like my siblings and me (described by neighbouring parents in their diaries as “gayer” than our peers), preferred to play “going to a dance”. By contrast today, there seems no time for child’s play anymore, and what there is seems prescribed and constrained by rules and regulations, and leaves nothing to the child’s imagination.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the seeming randomness of the diseases that take our loved ones. My brother Stephen the physician tells me that about half of the settlers in the early 19th century died from tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza, other infectious diseases or bacterial infections of the digestive system. About one in four children died young, one in eight women died of complications of pregnancy or childbirth, and not a few died of farm accidents or complications thereof. But for those who avoided these, life expectancy was remarkably long – most often into their 80s or even 90s.

And nearly a century later we remain victim to these terrible diseases and ‘complications’, none the wiser for all we have learned about them, and only the frequency of infant and childbirth deaths has declined. For those who live to adulthood, the same proportion live to their 80s as did so a century earlier.

209 Brock Av

Grey building is 209 Brock St, Toronto — my home.

I try to avoid nostalgia, but when Hannah and I sit and talk in the evenings, it’s often to remember the incredible sense of community we had eighty or even fifty years ago, and how much of that seems to have been lost. We were just a couple of dozen families, farmers all, struggling together in a beautiful but challenging place we had all chosen to move to. Even now, a century later, the same names appear on the maps of Toronto Township, names of people we worked and played with and loved – the Shooks, the Oliphants, the Westervelts, the Merigolds, the Hammonds, the Adamsons, the Greeniaus’, the Hemphills, the Oughtreds, the Harris’, the Clarksons, the Camerons. And, in my father’s and grandfather’s generation, before we drove them all away, our Mississauga First Nations families as well.

We knew, and still know, all these families. We proved up our land together, built houses together, created schools together, poughed fields together, fought together, prayed together, rebuilt together after disasters, mourned and buried our dead together. As children we played together, as did our parents when they were children. In many cases we married each other. We loved each other as much as we loved the members of our own blood families.

How have we lost that sense of community? I think it’s the economy that’s mainly the cause, an economy that once was based in sufficiency and cooperation but now is based in greed and waste and efficiency and destruction and violence and separation from the land. Where did we go wrong?

Three of our children live in cities far away – too far to travel. We can’t blame them – there’s no living to be made in farming anymore, or in tailoring for that matter. Oliver has moved to Winnipeg, hoping to make his fortune in printing and publishing. His sister Mary moved there too. Frank is a barber, still in Toronto, but he’s actually made his wealth as a bookie – preying, I think, on the desperate hopes of the poor. Clara’s in Montreal, a stenographer with a small baby.

I used to think it was our manifest destiny to prosper through hard work, and that that destiny was open to all. But now I’m not so sure. All the suffering, the cruelty, the wars that seem to get ever more violent and global, the mental distress, the abuse of women and children! How can I believe in the myth of ‘progress’ – that the world is generally getting better, and that with hard work and devotion our life and our descendants’ will be ever more so?

Perhaps, instead, the world is prescribed, fated. Perhaps whatever will be is God’s will and not to be questioned or complained about – or predicted or planned for. I think we all live lives of considerable self-sacrifice, but it isn’t for our children or out of some belief it is our duty to God or nation. It is, rather, the only life we know, and now, I fear, the only one we can imagine.

I hope some day one of my descendants writes the story of the Pollards and their communities in the 20th century, and that it’s a more peaceful, prosperous and joyful story than this one. One in which we rediscover the land and with it our connection to all people and all the beasts of the earth. And one in which a sharing and equal community once again is the font of our lives, our purpose, our compass. And that this abundance we have (though unfairly shared) – all this! – is, at last, sufficient.

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