The Canoe, 1912, by Tom Thomson. It was in a canoe that Thomson, easily one of the greatest Canadian painters ever, met his mysterious death. Believe it or not, this has something to do with me and the Manse. (Photo from groupofsevenart.com)
I utterly love the fact that the smallness of Queensborough means that everyone knows everyone else, and a close eye is kept by everybody on everything. In the case of Raymond and me and the Manse, that’s great news, because neighbours are keeping an eye on the house and would see if anything were amiss.
We saw another example of this close attention the last time we were at the Manse, a couple of weeks ago. It had been at least a month since our previous visit, so there’d been no activity at the house (save for a visit by my brother John one weekend) for quite a while. But on that Saturday morning, people living nearby, or who happened to be passing on foot or in their vehicles, spotted our car in the driveway (we’d arrived very late the night before), and my goodness, there was a steady stream of neighbours stopping by to say hello! And when Mike Tregunna of Tregunna Tree Farm pulled in to plant our new elm tree, there was even more reason for folks to come and see what was doing. I am so tickled that people take an interest in what’s going on at the Manse and stop in to offer encouragement and advice. It is just so, so different from city life.
But what, you might ask, does all this have to do with legendary Canadian artist Tom Thomson?
Well, I’ll tell you.
After the initial early rush of visitors had slowed down on the Saturday morning of that last visit, our neighbour Ruth Steele – she and her husband, Chuck, live in a pretty and well-kept-up historic house that was once the Anglican rectory and, when I was a kid at the Manse, was the home of Carl and Lois Gordon and their family – popped over to say hello, and she handed me a large envelope. “Have a look at it later,” she said. Intriguing!
Inside were a very nice welcome-to-the-neighbourhood card from Ruth and Chuck, and a package of stuff about, of all things, the mysterious death of Tom Thomson, whose legendary work was an inspiration for his friends in the Group of Seven and whose paintings are easily among the most iconic ever produced in Canada.
Said I to myself, “What on earth?”
Many of you may know something of the mystery of Tom Thomson’s death. For those who don’t, here’s a summary, courtesy of cbc.ca:
Tom Thomson, 1877-1917, one of the greatest and most influential Canadian artists ever.
“Tom Thomson, a prolific Canadian artist whose work inspired the Group of Seven, was reported missing two days after he set out on a canoe trip on Canoe Lake in Ontario’s Algonquin Park in July 1917. His body was found six days later, with a badly bruised temple and fishing line around his ankle. A coroner’s report concluded Thomson had died by accidental drowning, but no autopsy was performed. Some believe he lost his balance in the canoe and struck his head on the gunwale. But others believe he was murdered in a dispute with a local lodge owner over some money.
“His family arranged to have his body buried in the family plot near Owen Sound, Ont., but according to persistent rumours, his friends buried him near Canoe Lake and put sand in the family plot. His family has never allowed the grave to be exhumed.”
(What that synopsis fails to mention is that there has also been quite a bit of speculation that Thomson’s death was suicide, or that there was a romantic-situation-gone-wrong angle, or that it was something else altogether. And it also doesn’t say that he was only 39 years old at the time of his death, and a very experienced canoeist. All in all, the makings of a legend indeed.)
What the package Ruth gave me turned out to be was this: her brother-in-law in Ottawa, an experienced canoeist himself who, thanks to time spent in his youth at camps in the Algonquin Park area, was well aware of the Tom Thomson mystery and the legends, had a theory as to what had caused his death – and I thought it seemed like a pretty good one. It’s rather complicated (especially if you’re neither a canoeist nor a fisher, like me), but it has to do with a practice called paddle-jigging. You tie your fishing line to your paddle, and while you do the paddling, the line is automatically, through the motion you create, jigged up and down in the water so that the fish will believe that the fly or bait at the end of the line is real. Apparently it is a very old technique used and taught by aboriginals, but here’s the thing: it is extremely dangerous. Why? Because the way you have to set it up (it really is complicated; trust me) means that if a fish does bite, and pull with any force, the handle of your paddle can zoom up backwards and smack you straight in the head, possibly in the very fragile temple region.
That’s the theory that Ruth’s brother-in-law has about what happened to Tom Thomson: that he was knocked out by the paddle, fell into the lake, and drowned.
But that’s not all, people! He chose to tell his theory, his story, in, of all things, poetry. A long poem, all rhyming, with some additions made later after he’d done more research. Now there’s one thing I have to say about all that: it is not something you see every day.
It was all extremely interesting. And what Ruth had no way of knowing was that Tom Thomson and the mystery of his death had interested me ever since I was a kid growing up at the Manse. It was in fact the topic of a speech I wrote one year for the annual public-speaking contest we had at school. Those contests always terrified me, because I was brutally shy about speaking in public, but to my consternation my speeches generally seemed to get good scores and I’d get moved on up in the competition, which meant having to say them again. I’ve blocked out most memories of the speech thing, probably because of the youthful terror, but I am pretty sure that the Tom Thomson speech was the most successful one I ever did.
I think it’s quite cool that the package of stuff Ruth thought we’d be interested in was so bang-on, in that we were really interested in it – and in my case, had been since I lived at the Manse the first time around, many decades ago. What goes around comes around, doesn’t it?
And all the more intriguing when it involves iconic, and mysteriously dead, Canadian artists.