Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



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.

February 24, 2014

The Horses’ Bodies

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 01:15

wild horses chernobyl
image: wild horses reintroduced to Chernobyl

I watch the horses’ bodies.

They convey so clearly their feelings, their intent,
their cautions to each other.
So much more than I, they are their bodies, at one with them, present in them always.

What they can say with a gentle movement of the head,
or a sound as quiet and subtle as a whisper,
a ripple of muscle, a stamp or shuffle of the feet, a swish of the tail —
everything a relaying of the messages their bodies send them:
what’s happening inside, and between the members of their band,
and elsewhere, nearby, in their place.

Like what their stomach thought of that particular patch of grass they ate, and of last night’s hay,
and the water, a little more acidic than it used to be.

Or what their comrades think of this place
where they’ve been brought, what they think of its comforts,
whether they think of it as home,
and how they do or do not miss, or do not know,
that feeling of wild freedom.

Or what they think of the new stablemate, or the new barn,
or the newborn one — how healthy she is, how coordinated,
how articulate she is about herself,
how much she has to learn.

Or what the birds’ songs and calls (or their absences) are telling them,
and what the wind says about what is coming:
what weather, what joys, what dangers.

Or whether they’re at peace, in that endless timeless place
where the creatures that are still connected to the earth live,
in the stress-free moments when they can.

Or what the earth and the sun and the moon, and the leaves,
wet with rain or dew or frost, are saying.

Things that all the world can hear, except, it seems, for me.

.     .     .     .     .

My massage therapist’s fingers glide up and down my body,
eased by the warm oil, in the warm dark room, with the soft music.
With her hands she connects parts of me together, like a surgeon,
that I had not realized were pieces of a whole:
my kneebone, thigh muscles, breastbone, rippling together:
I am astonished to feel myself as one.

As she caresses my arms, my hands involuntarily curl to return her touch,
but they cannot reach, and they do not know what to do
with such a vast and mysterious canvas as a body.

Later, in my sleep, I return her gift with my fingers, my tongue,
but even this intense focus on body, this ecstacy, is not present,
it’s disconnected, it’s about my head not her body,
not a gift in kind at all.

And when I ride her, my hands holding tight around her shoulders,
we are not two bodies moving as one; rather
she is flying through the forest, panting and gasping
with each movement, soaring forward, reaching,
touching everything, laughing, snorting,
while I am merely trying to hold on.

.     .     .     .     .

My knowledge of my body is like my doctor’s,
limited to numbers on charts
(on days its suffering can no longer be ignored).
I read the numbers and tell my body: “Try this”.
It shakes in despair at my ignorance.

.     .     .     .     .

I imagine that I am a horse.

Nostrils flaring, ears alert and attuned to the sound of a distant train whistle, body quivering slightly
in the cool morning breeze.

I feel the sunrise, first through a transient warming of the atmosphere in which I am enveloped,
then as a barely perceptible increase in ambient light levels,
and then the explosion of direct sunlight,
screaming across the horizon.

I smell the approach of this other horse, before I hear her;
I don’t need to turn my head to acknowledge her — my smell does that, the pace of my breath,
the movement of muscles visible on my back and flanks.

She tells me, without words, that she still grieves the loss of her sibling, taken away without reason,
and that she is restless for the Spring.

I convey to her the weariness in my old bones, and she empathizes, with a nuzzle,
her breath a balm.

And then, as we walk, we share our memories, and dreams:
Of running, wild, across the heath, along the mountain trail.
Of that creek with the icy water, in the sunshine at dusk,
the sky purple and gold.
Of the little human girl who was too afraid to enjoy riding,
as desperately as she wanted to, and how we made her laugh,
and how she cried when she was led away.
Of the recent storm, and how it called to us.
Of the magic and fearsomeness of fire.

.     .     .     .     .

My friend Tali has been walking and running with me,
wild, naked, effortlessly, in the forest, pretending we are horses.
She has been around horses all her life.
What’s most important, she tells me,
in building a relationship with a horse,
is simply this: Allow them to choose.
“They know that the best way for them to learn
is by making their own choices, trial and error,
not by being told or coerced or even shown what to do.
That includes learning how to relate to you.”

We are watching the horses, and the wild deer
that come each evening to share their grass and water.
It occurs to me the horses are wise, and that Tali’s rule
would serve us well in establishing our relationships with others:
Allow our children to choose, and our potential partners in life and work,
and our community mates. Allow them all to choose.
The invitation, its gracefulness, its generosity,
its particularity, is all. Then just wait, and see, and trust
that the response will be the right one,
will match the chemistry of the situation.
Will make “sense”.
I bow to Tali, as a horse bows.

.     .     .     .     .

The next day I watch the tiny, graceful swallows:
aerial daredevils, so adapted to living in midair
that they can eat their fill without landing.

I would like to learn to live in midair: It seems to me
in this time that is both too early and too late
living in midair is the best way to be.
The horses, however, do not agree.

So now I watch the swallows’ bodies:
a different sort of grace,
a different way of knowing and being and communicating.
A different sense of connection and part-hood.

A different embodiment of
horse sense.

February 1, 2014

more than just scars

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:11

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

the research done with feral children shows
our neural pathways form
in line with what we need to learn,
and once we’re adolescents, then these paths are set
and can no longer change.

so if we fail to learn at least one abstract language
when we’re young, then once we’re ten
we can no longer do so:
all our paths are now in use for more essential purposes
(like instinct, the alertness to non-verbal cues, perhaps
the deeper meaning of caress, and hug).

but what if it’s the same for learning presence?
what if all those fears and unmet needs of early youth
informed us that we can’t afford to just let go,
not even for one moment?
what if our detachment, now, is in our bones
and in our bodies’ messageways so deep,
and so essentially a part of us
we cannot now escape it, or unlearn it anymore?

and what if modern humans now are wired
for chronic stress, a lifelong fate
of raw, inflamed response
to all the hurts and empty spaces, childhood scars
and pain and fears we’ve never learned to tame,
bequeathing incapacity, for life,
for true connection or authentic self?

if so these masks we wear, these sad personas
all the same, like everybody-else,
are truly prisons we cannot escape,

and sadder yet, we’ve raised our own young feral ones
to carry on our sentence, just like us
aware enough to know just what we’ve lost
but nevermore the means to find it.

January 24, 2014

Almost

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 22:15

face sketch

 

I used to almost-fall-in-love all the time.
I would take some small gesture,
some breathtaking sidelong look,
some small perfect curve,
and build around it a pixie, a faun,
a perfect creature I could love.

But now I have more practice with love’s rise and fall,
and Gaia’s dopamine-fueled tricks
do not work so well on me.
And so I hardly ever almost-fall-in-love anymore.
I see what my younger self did not.
Complexities. Qualities that need work to deal with.
Figments of commitment.

I still fall in love, but that’s rare and hard
and magic and fleeting and
not at all the same thing as
almost-falling-in-love.

January 12, 2014

as if

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 22:51

via ando perez buddha carving

as if it matters what we believe,
or think we know is true.

as if it matters what we do, or how we feel.

as if all-life-on-Earth cares what happens to us,
or to our species.

as if it makes a difference
whether we talk about what’s ahead
with our friends and children.

as if anyone would see us as an example,
a model, an inspiration,
someone to change their life.

as if love could possibly make things better.

as if ithere’s any point
imagining a better world a thousand years from now.

as if anything is really going to change.

as if.

as if it matters.

(image above from the cover of an ando perez book; artist unknown)

 

 

January 6, 2014

Unglued

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 13:45

broken eggshell

I wrote:

No use to the world broken.

I was right.

No use to the world.

Broken.

September 6, 2013

A Little Night Music

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:59

 

  1   Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie   Blood Sweat & Tears   1:22
  2   Comin’ Back to Me   Jefferson Airplane   5:15
  3   On Saturday Afternoons in 1963   Rickie Lee Jones   2:36
  4   Fixing a Hole   Beatles   2:37
  5   The Hurting Time   Annie Lennox   7:32
  6   Reprise   Mutual Admiration Society   2:06
  7   Mad World   Gary Jules   3:08
  8   East Coker (excerpts IV & V)   TS Eliot, read by An Unreliable Witness   4:25
  9   Interlude   Timi Yuro   3:20
 10   Little Lambs   Marc Jordan   3:49
 11   Fusion of the Five Elements   Michael Hedges   4:00
 12   Goin’ Back   Neil Young   4:42
 13   Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon   Bruce Cockburn   3:47
 14   Blackbird   The Beatles   2:18
 15   Smooching   Mark Knopfler   5:01
 16   After Hours   Rickie Lee Jones   2:14
 17   We Do What We Can   Sheryl Crow   5:39

“midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium”
– ts eliot

MoonHalo2

photo by the author

At night, everything changes.

We may try to make daytime hours the time of reason and intellect, but nighttime is always the time of emotion, of the senses, of instinct. Something happens to us when the sun has gone under the horizon. We become different. Our response to music likewise changes. Music that we might not notice in the daytime suddenly strikes a chord with us after dark. Memories shut away in daytime hours come back to haunt us, to remind us of what we once felt, of who we once were and perhaps still are under the masks we wear.

A British group, perhaps sensing this truth about us, has published a series of mixes, compilations of music that transports us at night in ways that it can’t in daylight hours. It’s called Late Night Tales, and there are nearly three dozen compilations published to date, each assembled by a different British rock group or DJ. What interests me about these playlists is how utterly subjective they are, how subject to the influence of what the compiler must have been feeling or doing when they first or most often heard them, how pretentious some of the lyrics and lines sound during the light of day. Although they’ve received critical acclaim, I can’t help thinking the whole process is pretty narcissistic. And that the objective of finding a mix that will resonate as powerfully with others (whose emotional chemistry and memories and experiences are inevitably and utterly different) as it does with the compiler, is essentially futile.

But perhaps that’s because I’m fussy about the music I like, the music that stirs me and moves me and touches me in a way nothing else can. For me, the nocturne is music of the heart, not the head, and is inclined to be etherial, contemplative, rhapsodic. Torch songs. Wistful, sorrowful melodies. Gentle music, though, free of the tension of the day. Letting go music.

Of course, I couldn’t resist doing my own compilation of A Little Night Music. I stuck to the Late Night Tales rules — total length no more than 70 minutes, mix of vocal and instrumental and prose/poetry readings. I started with 104 selections from my library that I thought might qualify, then, listening after midnight, whittled the list down to 35, and then, in the process of putting them into a sequence that (for me) flowed from piece to piece, and had a graceful beginning and ending, reduced it to the 17 pieces shown above. I thought of creating a recording of the set, but (apart of not wanting the copyright police on my case) decided the whole set wouldn’t ‘make sense’ to anyone but me, so I’m content to listen to it, alone, as an iTunes playlist, when I’m working or meditating or walking in the moonlight or the rain, late at night. I’m waiting to see if I get tired of it, if the songs’ incongruence with my memory banks starts to annoy me.

I’d encourage you to put together your own compilation. It’s a great challenge selecting just a dozen or two songs that actually go well together (I have a new appreciation for what skilled DJs do), and putting them in just the right order. And thinking about what your choices tell you about yourself.

So why publish it if it is never going to strike others the way it does you? As I was making my selections, I considered how I first came to hear each one. There is a story to each, and most of the stories are serendipitous. ‘Genius’ match software notwithstanding, my guess is that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of songs I might have come to love instead of each of the ones in my playlist. So the value of the exercise to others, I think, is to introduce them to unusual pieces of music they have probably never heard and would never hear were it not for their inclusion in such a list. So I’ve put a link to a YouTube or other recording of each selection in the table above in case there’s a discovery there for you. Just click on the track number of any songs you don’t know. There’s no online version of Mutual Admiration Society’s song Reprise but here’s another awesome Chris Thile song in the same mood — It’ll Happen (with Punch Brothers), if you’re looking for a substitute.

And while I am not inspired to listen to anyone’s (even the Late Night Tales) full mix from start to finish (too much like looking at someone’s old photos or home movies), I’m enjoying going through the selections from the published mixes, looking for great new music, and would welcome links to others’ selections.

August 11, 2013

apology

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 20:48

dave 2011

i wish i could love you better, world:
i try so hard to learn from you, hear you, see you, really touch you,
to connect with you, all-life-on-Earth
more fully, to be present with you,
to stop my head from keeping me apart from you,
from referring to you in the second person,
from keeping me
afraid to really know your suffering,
afraid to care too much,
afraid of your cold, your complexity, your darkness, your dangers,
afraid to just be, to be a part of you.


i wish i could love you better, people:
struggling, wretched, foolish, wounded human species
of which i also am a part.
but you exhaust me, infuriate me, demand so much of me.
it’s hard enough just tending my own grief, my own damage,
my own agony in this hellish, reckless soul-devouring culture
we have built, with the best of intentions.
how can you be so blind, so unchallenging of what you’re told,
so cruel?
how can you be otherwise?
i need to be free of you, miserable, sickly, narcissistic, arrogant bipeds.
i’m sorry i am so intolerant, so undisciplined, so unengaged,
so indifferent to your terrible knowledge, your tragedy,
so impatient, so relentlessly pessimistic,
so apologetic.


i wish i could love you better,
you, the lovely complicity of cells standing here in my arms,
you whose simple presence evokes in me such joy, provokes
this flush of chemicals that addict me and drown me
in the sense of happiness and peace and passion and invulnerability
and the mad illusion that my life has meaning,
that i really know you, and
that we are, if not one mind, at least one body.
but i cannot be what (i think) you want,
and in the end i know i am and must be alone,
that i love most of all solitude and stillness
and the impossible beauty of my imagination,
the safety of my own, solitary cells.
i am a child and can only be not-me so long
before i return 
to being nothing,
just waiting.
for what i do not know.


i am sorry for the pain i’ve caused
and for wasting your time, and mine
and for not being who i’m not.

(photo of the author by cheryl long, esperance, australia, march 2011)

April 7, 2013

Enough

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:15

enough

“and i thought i saw someone who seemed — at last! — to know the truth; i was mistaken: only a child laughing in the sun.”

 – david crosby

one day, everything will be free.

one day, we will again belong to the earth, and not remember that we once believed the earth belonged to us.

one day, there will be no signs of progress.

one day, there will be no need for ‘stores’.

one day, we will be able to see the path through the woods.

one day, we will let the ravens and the whales and the wolf cubs teach us how to play.

one day, we will know the real truth.

one day, the water will be safe to drink.

one day, we will not have to fuck the pain away.

one day, when we go we will leave no footprint.

grizzly fishing

one day, source waters and freshwater creatures will flow unimpeded down all the earth’s rivers to the sea, and the waters will so teem with life that bears will be able to feed by simply sitting in the stream with their mouths open.

one day, we will not run for shelter when it rains.

one day, we will not need words to know we are loved or to show that we love.

one day, we will all be wild.

one day, we will understand what the chickadees have been telling us.

one day, the dragons will return.

one day, we will not care that the lovely rain and warming sun washed away our drawings.

one day, we will know enough to be ‘unsettled’.

one day, we will have nowhere to go.

one day, the night sky will be silent and alive.

baraka

one day, our principal canvasses will be our bodies.

one day, the wind will whisper secrets that we couldn’t hear before.

one day, we will remember how to sleep in trees.

one day, we will learn to walk like foxes.

one day, we will not need the word ‘should’.

one day, the last of our species will die, unnoticed.

one day, we will not have to be ‘mindful’.

one day, we will answer the coyote’s call.

one day, we will not be afraid.

one day, we will really see.

one day, we will just be.

one day, this beautiful, complex, unfathomable world will be enough.

one day, everything will be free.

 

(Credits: The second last line of this poem was adapted from this excerpt from this video by Tim Minchin, which also inspired this poem’s title; the first (and last) line of the poem is the title of this interesting-sounding new film about intentional communities in Haiti; both the stylized O logo in the title and the grizzly image were sent to me and I cannot find their original sources online; the image of the Amazonian girl is from the film Baraka.)

 

November 26, 2012

Distracted

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:49

(this story is fiction: none of it really happened, or is ever likely to, and none of the characters in the story, other than the writers referred to, are real people or based on real people, including me :-) vancouver skyline

“So what did you think of Charles?”

I was sitting on Lori’s balcony looking at the night skyline, the stars and the ships in English Bay harbour — ugly rusted polluting hulks during the day, but beautiful at night, with their bulk and tarnish hidden by the dark and their lights glimmering and reflected in the sparkling water.

The ‘Charles’ in question was Charles Eisenstein, whom Lori and I had gone to see the previous evening, speaking about “Living the New Economy”, and how we would have to straddle the old industrial growth economy and the new, fledgling, gift economy, probably for decades until the former had completely collapsed. Lori slid through the sliding door and into the seat beside me, carrying a tray of tea, and handed me my mug.

“The idealist in me loved his speech”, I replied. “He’s absolutely right that the only thing that keeps us shackled to the old economy is the belief of almost everyone we know in the world, that the old economy is the only one that can work in today’s world. It may indeed be as easy as just acknowledging that the agreements that underlie the industrial economy, with its addiction to endless growth and endless increases in debt and the desolation of our planet, no longer serve us, and that we need a new set of agreements based on what we really value in the world. Then our ‘value’ in the world would no longer be measured by our wealth and income, but by our ability to identify and offer our unique gift to the world, and in so doing increase the amount of connection and love and appreciation and joy in the world, and make it sustainable and resilient in the face of the problems we’re going to deal with over the next few decades — economic collapse, energy collapse, and ecological collapse.” I took a sip of tea. “But I’m still not sure we can get there from here, despite his elegant arguments. Even if everyone on the Exxon Valdez had seen the ship heading for the reef and wanted to change course in time, that would not have prevented the environmental disaster.” Another sip. “What did you think?”

“I think you’re a crotchety old pessimist,” she replied, smiling at me. Read about the Hisatsinom/Se’da peoples of the American Southwest. They built a culture that lasted thousands of years, and when it was wracked by climate change — the 300 year drought, the mini ice age and the deforestation of the Southwest — they just walked away, decided that this complex, ancient culture and its religions and ‘agreements’ no longer served them. They remembered from their ancestors that humans are by nature nomadic, so they abandoned their astonishing but no-longer-sustainable pueblo settlements, and went back to the land. They travelled to areas where indigenous nomadic peoples were thriving and learned from and integrated themselves into them. They made new agreements with the natural world and all life within it. Why can’t we do the same?”

I sighed, and thought for a while. In addition to Eisenstein’s Sacred Economy I had been reading Chris Ware’s brilliantly-drawn box of comics Building Stories, a set of 14 graphic novels about the inhabitants of a 3-story apartment building in Chicago. The characters of these novels (short stories, really) are tragic — lonely, confused, anxious, struggling, trapped by their circumstances of ill health, poverty, age, low self-esteem and ignorance — and none of the stories has a resolution. They just kind of end with an acknowledgement of hopelessness and despair. They are sympathetic, desperate characters, best ‘personified’ by a bee who gets caught inside the apartment, repeatedly smashes into the windows trying to reach his family and the flowers outside, and laments the invisible “hard air” that inexplicably prevents him from escape, from achieving his goals. These characters seemed to me to represent most of the people in the world, far more than the capable, psyched-up group we sat amongst listening to Eisenstein. I wondered what they would have thought of his speech, and how they would have answered Lori’s question.

Ware writes “We exist in the present, but we spend the majority of our time thinking about the past and worrying about the future. We don’t really experience what’s going on in the exact moment.” How, I wondered, could we hope to get even a small proportion of the people shackled to our industrial growth economy sufficiently present, sufficiently aware, sufficiently free of the millions of distractions that prevent us from having any idea what we’re doing to this world, and ourselves, and each other, to begin to create this “new agreement”? Are most people even capable any more of knowing, imagining what their gift to the world is, and how they could offer it in a world that valued it instead of ‘economic wealth’?

I went into Lori’s kitchen and got us a bowl of raspberry sorbet, and two spoons, still thinking about what she’d said. I imagined the pueblo dwellers abandoning their elaborate and comfortable caveside homes and religious sculptures and other unsustainable artifacts and processes of living, and trekking to the lands of indigenous nomadic tribes to ask if they could be taught how to be gatherer-hunters again. I sat down beside Lori, gesturing to the sorbet.

“My guess is that the Se’da probably clung to their civilized ways for a couple of centuries as climate hell was breaking loose, hoping to figure out some way to keep their complex civilization going, just as we are, before it reached such an irretrievable state of collapse that they had no choice but to abandon it. And I’d guess that their birth rate had dropped so much for so long by then that there weren’t a lot of them left to assimilate. We humans are a stubborn and change resistant lot.”

Lori looked at me with a frown, and displayed that skeptical mouth-turned-down pout I loved so much. I laughed. She stood and put her hands on the railing of the balcony, avoiding the chicken wire we’d rigged to the balcony spindles to keep Myron the cat from accidentally falling through. She turned to me. “Your grandparents told you that they survived the Great Depression because most people then still knew how to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and basically be self-sufficient when they couldn’t afford to buy anything. My great-grandparents, who wrote about those times, said the opposite. Most people in cities lived in apartments then and didn’t know how to do much more than the clerical jobs most of them did in those days. Your grandparents lived in Winnipeg, Spencer — hello, grow your own food? But they learned to do what they had to to survive. And they did it fast. Look at the Cuban people when the Soviet empire collapsed and their oil supply suddenly dropped by 95%. In just three years they went from 10% organic agriculture to 85%. They lost an average of 20 pounds apiece but they did it. They had no other choice. They’re smart people. They turned it around.” She sat on her haunches and poked me gently in the nose. “We’re smart too. We can turn it around.” She sat, taking the sorbet bowl as she did.

“I don’t know what happened to previous collapsed civilizations, or how difficult it was for them to walk away from the only culture they knew, but I suspect it wasn’t like Charles Eisenstein’s dream of orderly and enlightened transition,” I said. “And my guess is that the Se’da were just as smart as we are and less dependent on centralized systems. As for  Cuba, they’re not in any better shape than any of the countries around them. They depend on Venezuela’s help and oil, their infrastructure is collapsing even faster than ours, and most of them from what I understand want to repeat all the economic mistakes we’ve made in the last half century, in the belief it will make their economic lives better. As we face more frequent and serious economic, energy and ecological crises in the coming years, we’re going to respond as best we can, and we’ll do some amazing things, but they won’t be fast enough or substantial enough changes to keep our civilization from collapsing in fits and starts until there’s nothing left of it. Just because we can theoretically create a better, more sustainable economy, responsive to our true values, doesn’t mean we will, or even that we could practically engender the collective will to practically do so. Economies evolve, they aren’t designed. When governments have tried to impose radically new economies on citizens they’ve failed, even when the citizens were initially keen.”

Lori shrugged. “Well, it may not be in our nature to change our behaviour quickly, or to change it radically on any scale until and unless there appears to be no other choice. But it is in our nature, I think, to try to change our, and others’ behaviour, as soon as we perceive a need to change. So I respect your curmudgeonly defeatist’s belief that it’s hopeless and your right to give up trying to bring about any large-scale change, but you should also respect my, and Charles’, and many others’ fervent belief that what seems now ‘impossible’ — living and co-creating the new economy until it replaces the old one — is our only option and is worth working all-out to try to achieve. And not undermine us or get in our way.”

“I would never get in your way,” I replied, gesturing deferentially. “But I’m not sure I can promise not to undermine you. Lots of people ask me for my opinion on what I think they can and ‘should’ do, and I’m not going to be dishonest with them. I’m going to tell them that what I’m doing is letting go of the belief that we can bring about any significant change to our political, economic or other systems until we have absolutely no other choice but to change (and even then, I doubt that the change most people will make will be the one that is ‘best’ for them, no matter how cleverly you model it and no matter how articulately you argue for it). I’m going to tell them that what I’m doing is living in the moment, as joyfully as possible, without denying or contributing excessively to the damage our culture is doing to this planet. I’m going to tell them that I think our purpose for being here is to connect, and learn, and love, and understand, and play, and pay attention, and discover and be who we really are, and that’s enough. In fact, if we are able to do that, I think we’ll then know what we must do, what we can do, and what we want to do. We won’t need anyone to tell us, or persuade us.”

Lori gave me an incredulous look, and she knew immediately from my expression that I wasn’t so sure of this myself. I gave her the hands-out-sideways, palms-face-up “at least I think so” signal, and she replied with the self-satisfied “yeah I figured” double-nod. Recently we’d been talking less and just being with each other more, and had picked up this marvellous vocabulary of unspoken signs and gestures. We’d probably always been using them to accompany our spoken words, but now without the words we realized how much they conveyed, in many ways better than the words ever could.

I thought back a week to when we had been together at my house on the island, looking out from my balcony at night over forest and mountains and sea, with no human constructs to dim the awesome sight of the ocean of stars spread out before and below us, and the moon intermittently shrouded by fog and mist.

We’d had a discussion then about Chris Ware’s disconnected, distracted, damaged, cowed people, and about lots of people we knew like them, and what it might take to convince them that our civilization was roaring off a cliff and soon all our lives would be much different, unrecognizable, more local, more focused on sufficiency and self-reliance and resilience, based primarily on sharing and generosity among immediate neighbours that today, by choice, we hardly even know. Some of them, we decided, would understand — the grounded ones who, despite the turmoil and busy-ness and preoccupation with the needs of the moment that dominated their lives, intuitively knew that something was very wrong with the way we mostly live now, and that it could not go on much longer. Most, though, we knew, would think we were slightly or completely crazy. They would not know what to make of Charles Eisenstein or his ideas, and would probably dismiss them quickly as either naive or just bizarre. I stood up and wrapped my arms around Lori as she stared at the city below, Vancouver at midnight, everyone trying to sleep to be ready to face tomorrow’s needs.

“We are all like TS Eliot’s wounded surgeon,” I said, finally, “trying to help others and heal ourselves at the same time. And as we do that we are so utterly distracted from seeing the world, and ourselves in it, as they really are, that it is as if we are doing this healing work in a phantom world, what Joe Bageant called a hologram, a thin but dazzling electromechanical replica of the world that includes only selected human-constructed parts of it, and none of the natural world. A complicated projection of the complex world that is not the real world at all, but we’re so distracted by all the propaganda and gaudy, violent and escapist entertainments and phoney, ‘urgent’ choices, and manufactured scarcities and crises inside it, that we don’t notice it’s not real. We have no time or capacity left to realize that we stopped living in the real world long ago, when at a young age our culture began to wire our brains to be a miniature representation of the hologram, and train us to live inside our heads, inside the hologram inside the hologram. The real world is here, now, outside our heads, outside our human constructs, connected with all other life on Earth. We know that, but like the bee caught inside by the ‘hard air’, we cannot reach it, cannot get to it.” I moved my fingers, bee-like, and bumped them repeatedly into the glass sliding door. Myron looked at me quizzically. He couldn’t see or smell the bee, and the ‘hard air’ didn’t seem a problem for him; he just scratched at it when he wanted in or out, and someone would come along and move it out of the way.

Lori turned around and returned my embrace. She looked at me and held me and signalled to me at once her empathy, her groundedness, her amusement, her appreciation, her fears, her dissatisfaction with my inability to articulate exactly what I meant, that she was close to understanding. We just stood like that, wordlessly, for a while. Finally, she said, quietly, “Well, my love, what should we do in the meantime?”

I sighed again, breathing in the smell of her. “I think we should get undressed and make love for six hours until nothing else matters, and then sleep til three in the afternoon, and then go for a long walk in the forest in the rain and stop in at that tea house in the park and have people in kimonos shower us with flower petals and incant the wisdom of the ages. And then give each other a massage and shower together and make love for another six hours.”

Lori punched me playfully and pushed me away. “You’re incorrigible,” she said. “You think sex is the answer to everything, even though you yourself wrote recently — and I quote — ‘ecstasy is not the same as presence’. It’s not nirvana, it’s a form of escapism, Spencer. There’s a reason no woman wants to have sex for six hours, just like no one wants to go bungee jumping for six hours. It’s unnatural. The flood of pleasure chemicals is wonderful, of course, but you can’t sustain it for too long or indulge it too often or it becomes, well, too much. I’m worried about you, my love. Talk about distractions.

“I’ll prove you wrong,” I said, lifting her up and carrying her through (or around) the sliding door to the bedroom, her giggling soon infecting me too. We compromised, making love for two hours, and then, naked and wrapped together in a lovely, giant soft blanket, shuffled back to the balcony, grabbing cans of grapefruit soda on the way. Myron followed, chasing the part of the blanket that dragged on the floor. We fell together into one of the balcony chairs, Lori deliciously perched on my lap.

The city below us was quiet, but bright with the blaze of miles of streetlights and apartment lights spread out before us. I quoted Rebecca Lee from her story “Bobcat”: “The city never disappoints…It doesn’t know what you want, so it tries to give you everything.” We stared out at the skyline for a while, silently. Our bodies talked to each other, while our heads went off, presumably, in different directions. Mine was inventing stories about the people in the apartments below, some darkened, many still alight. “You see that apartment there?”, I said, pointing. “The guy in there is desperately trying to get to sleep, worrying about a presentation he has to make to a large audience tomorrow about performance management systems. He has never cooked a meal for himself, and wouldn’t know how to begin. His employer has given ten straight unqualified audit opinions to three of the companies driving development of the Tar Sands. And the woman civil servant in that apartment over there is worried because her two-year-old isn’t really talking much yet, and because money is so scarce she may have to give up her apartment and move somewhere she thinks is more dangerous. Her ex-boyfriend convinced her climate change is a myth, and she’s never even heard of peak oil. Her boss’ boss, the federal finance minister, just signed a secret trade deal with China that will bind future generations to give them our oil and water for 50 years or face billion-dollar treaty abrogation fines.”

Lori put her hand over my mouth. “Shh, I know. We’re all distracted in our own way.” she said. Then she laughed to herself and started to impersonate me, with a mock stern expression on her face and her head bobbing from side to side, saying, in a deep voice, “We are all wounded, lost in our personal crises, misinformed, distrustful of the media, and vaguely aware of what’s going on in the world but without the time or energy to research, to ask questions, or reflect, to make sense of it all, to know the real cost of our distraction. We have not merely been turned into unconscious, conditioned consumers of our culture, we have begun to be consumed by it.” She mimicked my palm-upward “it’s hopeless” signal. I laughed, and, though she couldn’t see me from her position on my lap, I gave her the “I’m not worthy” signal. Somehow she picked it up and gave a small exaggerated bow, and then snuggled back into my chest.

She’d put on the “Evergreen” classical Internet music radio station I loved (she called it the “Sad Adagios” station) on low on our way into the bedroom, and now Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto was playing quietly inside, and the combination of Lori’s unspoken signals of affection, and the lights, and the buzz of the love chemicals still coursing through my body, and the pathetic state of the world and its creatures, and the soft pressure of Lori’s body against mine, and the lovely music, coming together, overwhelmed me. It was as if I was joining all-life-on-Earth in a giant, synchronous, sympathetic sigh. Tears filled my eyes, and an amazing feeling of love and connection filled the rest of me. Lori used her arms to pull mine tighter around her, and whispered “It’s OK sweetie.”

We just breathed together for a few moments, and then Lori announced, holding up the five fingers of her left hand: “Five things we’re going to do to make things better, Spence. You can join us or just play around us, but don’t get in our way. One, instead of telling people what not to do, or what they should do, we’re going to make it easy and fun for them to do the right things, things like walking instead of driving, and things like inviting your neighbours to a party to learn how to make jam.” She was expecting me to interject and was ready to shush me but I was just listening, breathing, taking it all in, uncritical for a change.

Two, we’re going to make resilience relevant to the here-and-now, so people will want to learn it now, rather than just before everything is unquestionably falling apart. We’ll make the woman in that apartment you were talking about more resilient so she can be at peace with her child’s rate of development, and at peace with the beauty and joy and sense of community to be found wherever she lives. We’ll show that guy how enjoyable and liberating it is to learn to cook, and grow some of his own food, maybe in a communal garden on the rooftop of his apartment. And we’ll show people that being resilient doesn’t require you to change, or “become better”, just a little less dependent on The Machine and more aware of the power and wisdom and pleasure of the company of the people right in your community, and that drawing on that community and its resources can actually save you more time than it asks of you.”

Three. We’re going to engage the busiest and most distracted people in the community by engaging their children and grandchildren first, through their schools and their games and their music and their movies and the things they do for fun. Not by propaganda or scary stories about the future, but by showing them enjoyable, creative things to do that will actually be useful to them. Like how to use their computer to design their own clothes professionally and then create a printable pattern that will let them make, and re-make, those clothes themselves. Like how to prepare for a pandemic by participating in a real-time, cooperative massive multiplayer online game that will involve doing stuff in the real world to ‘win’. Like how to direct their own learning to identify what they really want to do in the world that they can do well and that meets a real need, and then convert that knowledge into a real local cooperative, meeting and working with others in the community with complementary skills, so that they never need to depend on someone else ‘giving’ them a ‘job’, a job they’d probably hate anyway.”

Four. We’re going to engage the grandmothers to tell stories about how they learned to cope with grief, and loss, and sorrow, and helplessness, and despair, and fear, and outrage, and powerlessness, and use those stories to return the grandmothers to the revered status they once held in every society and which they still hold in many indigenous cultures. Because the grandmothers know the answers to the questions most of the rest of us are afraid to ask, to deal with, to face. And we’re going to use the most subversive tool ever invented, the story, to show the rest of us we need not be afraid, that the grandmothers can teach us, can model for us, what we need to know to face any crisis, now and in the future.”

Five. And you’ll love this one, Spence. We’re going to liberate the dependent captives of our culture by taking on the identity, the persona and the costume of the trickster, the raven, the Loki, the coyote, the satyr, the faun, the mischief-maker, and in that role bring to bear the ‘crazy wisdom’ that Tom Robbins and Kenny Ausubel talk about, the ‘wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything’. Your ‘joyful pessimism’, Spencer! We will learn to play the Fool, the Green Man, the harbinger of new beginnings, the innocent who brings fresh eyes and naive ‘Emperor’s got no clothes’ courage and cleverly replace the old frames with new impossible, intuitive, wondrous children’s frames, by sleight of mind. We will distract them back to reality.”

I looked at her open-mouthed. “Wow,” I said, “where did that come from? That’s amazing.”

“It came from out there,” she replied, gesturing over the balcony. “And in here.” She pointed to her body. “And from in here, too,” she added, pointing at my body. “Our bodies talked, once your mind got out of the way, and they dreamed some of this up between them. They know a lot that we never listen to.”

“I’m blown away. That’s an awesome list. I should be taking notes. Just one question, though: Who is this ‘we’ that is going to do these five things?”

Lori thought for a moment. “You know when Charles Eisenstein talks about how the emerging new economy will allow people to ‘make a living’ by identifying and offering their unique gift to the world? Well, ‘we’ are the people whose unique gift is congruent with one or more of these five actions. A coalition of those  who both care about making the world a better place, right now and in the future, and believe it’s worth trying, even if it’s hopeless, even if it’s ‘impossible’. For the actions about making things easy and fun, that would be facilitators and game-makers and people from who we can relearn how to play. For the actions around becoming more resilient now in all we do, that might be people who have nothing to lose, people who have learned to let go of everything. For the actions around engaging young people it might be people who really care about kids, people — probably not teachers, though — who do things that appeal to young people’s sense of self-discovery and wonder and curiosity, people who demonstrate stuff, who let you try it just for fun, just to see if you can do it. For the actions around listening to the grandmothers, it will be the grandmothers of course, but also the First Nations people, and the story-tellers.”

She paused, and wrinkled her nose, and then went on: “The actions around the trickster, the Fool, may be harder to initiate and recruit the right people for. It might be improv people, or people like you who have good imaginations and love to play, and clever scriptwriters. But we have nature’s tricksters to learn from too. Right, Myron?” she said, as the cat batted a piece of paper among the chair legs. “I’ve seen you play with Myron, pulling a string around the room for an hour while he chased it. He basically taught you how to play with him, and a lot more besides. He is at once wise and silly, a perfect trickster.”

We both fell silent after that, listening to the music and staring at the lights above and below us. There was a full moon, but a rolling translucent mist softened its edges, gave it a halo. Neither of us was tired, and neither of us had to get up early the next day, so we just were, together, talking with our eyes and our faces and our bodies, breathing together.

“Up,” she said, after a while, pulling me up as she rose, the blanket still wrapped around both of our still-naked bodies. When I gave her the ‘what’s up’ look she said “I’m going to teach you something about resilience.” She went into the bedroom and retrieved a second oversized blanket, and then wrapped one around each of us, using some velcro tabs she’d somehow attached to them, until they were loosely but securely wrapped around each of us, like ersatz microfibre ankle-length kimonos. “Neat, huh? Instant one-layer all-weather clothing. A homeless guy showed me the idea. Now we’re going for a walk in the forest. Yes, I know it’s the middle of the night, and no, we’re not going to take flashlights or GPS gadgets. I’m going to bring out the bonobo in you. Just trust me.”

She led me out and down the elevator and soon we were walking along the deserted street, hand-in-hand, the five blocks to the entrance of Stanley Park, one of the world’s largest urban forests. I was anxious as soon as we entered the park and made our way onto one of the myriad of trails, which was not lit for night travel. It was incredibly beautiful, in there under the stars and the hazy moon, with fog sweeping in from the harbour. But I could not enjoy it. My mind imagined encountering unhinged people sleeping in the park, night police sweeps, one of us falling and knocking ourselves unconscious. I’d gotten lost running in this forest lots of times, in full daylight when you could see and read the path markers. Lori could sense the tension in me just from holding my hand.

“OK, here’s where the bonobo comes in,” she said. She pulled me off the trail and for about a minute we stumbled through total darkness. Then she sat me on a log, a fallen Douglas Fir. She knelt in front of me and pulled off the velcro that kept the blankets in place in the front, from chest to knees, first mine, then hers. Then she gently but insistently rubbed the front of her naked body against mine, to heavenly effect. She fended off my attempts to kiss her, hold her, and just continued the calming, rubbing motion, for about two minutes. Then she re-attached the velcro, drew me to my feet, and led me back to the path. “OK, now,” she said in a half-asking, half-declarative voice.

It felt as if my heart rate had fallen by half. Instead of aroused, or perhaps in addition to aroused, I felt serene, as if all my fears and dreads and sorrows had evaporated. Once back on the path, my eyes now adjusted to darkness, the moonlight was enough to make me feel more confident navigating the pathway, despite the shadow of the looming, ancient rainforest all around us. I became aware of smells and sounds and even the taste of the air that I’d never noticed before. For an hour or so we walked, doing what Lori called “mindful wandering”, in silence, just sensing, noticing, perceiving, imagining, ‘making sense’.

And then Lori once again pulled me off the trail, deeper and deeper into the darkness, and my anxiety level soared again. Again, Lori sensed this and sat me on the ground, only this time she only opened the velcro on her own blanket, and kneeling in front of me drew me towards her and guided my lips to her breasts. Involuntarily, driven by some primal instinct I didn’t recognize, I suckled like a baby, and for what seemed several minutes Lori sang to me, so quietly that sometimes the light wind drowned out her words. I lost track of time before Lori reattached her blanket and led me still further into the forest.

I was going to say something about how wonderfully distracting her actions were in calming me, but then, as if I could hear her voice answering me, I realized that what she was doing was the opposite of distraction, that it was the fears and imaginings in my head, and my body’s tense fight-or-flight reaction to those fears and imaginings, that were the distraction. And that her feral, comforting actions were bringing me away from that distraction, away from the fictions I’d made up in my head, and back to reality. I was swooning, and exhausted, but felt more alive and at peace than I could remember ever feeling.

We stopped when we came to a clearing, soft, flat and moss-covered. “Good enough for the deer, good enough for us,” she said to herself quietly, and pulled me down beside her. She lay me down on my side and then lay in front of me, head-to-feet, feet-to-head. “Put your head on my thigh, like a pillow” she said, opening one of the velcro pieces, lifting her top leg, and angling her body slightly to accommodate my head. She gently lowered her leg to cocoon me between her indescribably soft thighs. She created a pillow for herself between my thighs the same way. The padding of the moss and the blankets cushioned us perfectly.

She was asleep in a moment. I just lay there, enveloped by her, breathless. All that existed was the sound of her breath, the smell of her, the sound of the breeze beyond. It was magic. I drifted off and woke again, wanting to memorize what this felt like, what this was, so that I could stop myself from ever going back into that terrible unreal place in my head. I could hear the rustle of the ravens’ feathers as they surveyed us from the trees above. I could hear the coyotes’ howl and the cats’ knowing purr. I could see the etched faces of the First Nations grandmothers, laughing, nodding at my acknowledgement of what they had always known.

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