The poetry of decay

Crumbling garage March 2014There is no shortage of old, decaying buildings here in The Country North of Belleville (as Al Purdy called our part of the world in one of his most famous poems). On many of the back roads, and even the front roads, you will see old barns and sheds, and sometimes houses, some of them dating from pioneer times, that are gradually wearing down and falling apart – some rather majestically, and some in just kind of a slow, quiet, wistful way.

While I’ve always been interested in these ghosts of buildings past – I wrote at length here about one of the more eye-catching ones, the hollow building up on a high hill on Tannery Road a little east of Madoc – they seem to have caught my attention a little more of late. I find myself stopping to photograph them as I drive around central Hastings County, not quite knowing what I plan to do with the photos. These decaying buildings speak to me somehow. Perhaps they speak the poetry of what once was. Or of the past meeting the present.

Maybe I have poetry on my mind tonight because I have just come home from a couple of hours spent in the company of a poet. Kath MacLean, whom you can read all about here, was the latest speaker in the always-excellent Friends of the Tweed Public Library Writers’ Series. MacLean, who lives in Edmonton, will be spending the next few months as writer in residence at the A-frame cottage that none other than Al Purdy (and his wife, Eurithe) built down in Prince Edward County. The Friends took advantage of her temporary proximity to Tweed (our area) to invite her to speak about her work. Which she did, most eloquently, as she read some of her wonderful poems.

There are several running themes in MacLean’s work, but one of them is ghosts – and maybe that’s another thing that made me think of the decaying buildings of central Hastings County tonight.

Now the shed, or garage, or whatever it is, that you can see collapsing in the photo at the top of this post is perhaps not what you would call a “historic” building. It’s kind of hard to tell how old it is; it could be anywhere from a century to just a few decades in age. But because I drive past it every day travelling to and from work, I’ve basically been watching its collapse in slow motion. The photo at the top I took a year ago, in March 2014; here is how it looked just a few days ago:

Crumbling garage April 2015

I have to say I’m kind of surprised that the roof hasn’t completely caved in. It has seemed to be on the brink of doing so for ever so long, and with this past winter’s heavy snows I was sure it would. But while it’s in dire shape, it is still a roof, after a fashion. Not a very straight roof, but at least it’s still there.

Once upon a time, when I was kid growing up in this same Manse where Raymond and I now live, I knew the people who lived in the decaying house that’s behind this decaying garage. One young man, a little older than I, sang in our choir at St. Andrew’s United Church. He was soft-spoken, a nice chap. When I drive by the abandoned house and the crumbling garage, I wonder what happened to him – where he is now, what profession he chose, whether he by any chance still sings in a church choir.

I guess it’s the human factor that ultimately speaks to us when we consider crumbling buildings, isn’t it? The people who built those buildings, who used them and lived in them. Even if those people are still alive, they no longer live in or use these places; and so, to these places, they are ghosts.

And for those of us who drive by and observe this sometimes splendid, sometimes almost imperceptible decay? What is it to us?

Well, I can’t answer for you. To me, it is a kind of silent poetry.

Why the long A, Eldorado?

Eldorado sign

The sign at the southern entrance to the hamlet of Eldorado, just across the way from us here in Queensborough and straight up Highway 62 from Madoc. How would you pronounce it?

Okay, readers, I have yet another excellent central-Hastings-County mystery for you to solve! This one comes from a fellow reader, James, who tells me (in a comment he posted a couple of days ago, which you can find if you scroll way down here, in the “About” section of Meanwhile at the Manse ) that he moved to the area of the hamlet of Eldorado (just a few miles northwest of us here in Queensborough) a little over a year ago. (Welcome to our wonderful part of the world, James!) I know that some of you get alerts when new comments are posted so will have already seen it, but many of you do not. So for your benefit, here is James’s question:

All the history books and people from out of town refer to and pronounce Eldorado “El Dorado”, as it was originally called when the village was founded back in the gold mining days. As I understand, the name was shortened to “Eldorado” when the post office opened but the pronunciation is the same. Every other place or thing called Eldorado or El Dorado is pronounced the same way – like “Colorado”, “Cadillac Eldorado” or “Eldorado Gold”. I hear some locals say Eldorado with a long /ā/ sound, more like “Elder /ā/ do”. So my question is why? Do you know who started to pronounce it that way and possibly when?

Great question, James! Would that I had the answer.

Because you are absolutely right: anywhere and everywhere else in the world that the name El Dorado, or Eldorado, is used, it is pronounced with a soft A, as in the original Spanish. (Meaning “the gilded [or golden] one.”) If you click here, the knowledgeable folks at no less an organization than National Geographic will tell you all about the legend of El Dorado, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and why all kinds of real, or once-real, or illusory, or hoped-for, mining towns (like our very own Eldorado, Hastings County, Ont., site of the brief but ever-so-exciting 19th-century gold rush that James refers to) got that name. Pronounced (in all those other cases) with a soft A.

But not here! Here in Hastings County (and environs), we seem to like our hard As, as another reader, Wendy, pointed out in a response to James’s query. She even invoked a matter close to my heart (I wrote about it here), which is the mysterious pronunciation of the name of the small but for some reason well-known hamlet (in neighbouring Lennox and Addington County) of Kaladar:

I have wondered about the pronunciation myself in recent years, although not during the time I was growing up in MAYdoc. It seems to be a bit of a HastingsCountyism to insert the long A sound in names that would otherwise be pronounced with a short a. Many local people also call Kaladar, KaladAAr. (difficult to describe). Who knows when this all began?!

Wendy’s comment reminded me that people who don’t know the proper pronunciation of Madoc (which is “town” for us here in Queensborough, and which is, as Wendy says, pronounced MAYdoc) tend to assume it is something along the lines of “MeDOC,” as in a certain region of France. And yes, those same people would probably never think to pronounce Kaladar as “KalaDARE” – but that’s the more common version here where we live.

Is it possible that the hard A is an Ottawa Valley regionalism, and we are just close enough to the Ottawa Valley to have inherited it? Is there any chance that it’s a tendency that came here thanks to the specific part of the British Isles that many Hastings County settlers came from? Could the United Empire Loyalists have anything to do with it? I could throw out as a possibility the strong francophone influence that we have historically had in this area, but French is not at all big on hard As, so it can’t be that.

Perhaps it’s just that the rugged inhabitants of this rugged part of the world (“The Country North of Belleville,” to quote Al Purdy) decided that soft As were a little too fancy-schmancy for them, and by god they were going to pronounce things a little harshly, just as life here in Shield country was being harsh to them.

People, what do you think? Any theories?

The joy of being right where you belong, on an early day in spring

Rocky outcrop, Quin-Mo-Lac RoadHave you ever had a moment when a sense of pure and absolute joy floods over and washes through you? I mean, not just a moment of happiness – I assume and hope that we all have lots and lots of those – but utter, overwhelming joy? I think I’ve had that feeling maybe half a dozen times in my life. It always comes on unexpectedly, triggered by small things: a cherished song, a particular place, a sense of rightness with the world.

It happened to me the other day. And it was brought on by what you see in the picture at the top of this post: a rocky outcropping along a stretch of country road on a beautiful, sunny early-spring day.

“But rocky outcroppings and old fences and farm fields and sunny days are not hard to come by, especially in the North of 7 country where she lives,” is what I expect you are saying to yourself. And that is very true. But that’s what I mean about moments of unexpected joy: they can be triggered by the simplest and even the most familiar of things.

In this case I think it was the sudden realization, as Raymond and I travelled along that road in the early-spring sunshine, that the rocky outcropping – so utterly representative of the Canadian Shield landscape here in “the country north of Belleville,” as poet Al Purdy put it – was also utterly representative for me of home: this part of Hastings County where I grew up and where I now live once again. The landscape of rocks and lakes and rivers and trees and marshes and sumacs and split-rail fences and old barns and “bush land, scrub land” (to quote Al Purdy again) may not be to everyone’s taste. But for me, it is beautiful. And it is home. And I felt so utterly, utterly blessed, on that sunny early-spring day, to be home in this beautiful place.

And just as that wonderful feeling was washing over me… I saw my first robin of the year. Springtime has truly come. And that is a joyous thing.

* * *

St. Andrew's EasterSt. Andrew's Easter 2Speaking of springtime and joy, any reader who happens to be in the Queensborough area tomorrow – or who would like to take advantage of another pleasant spring day to make an excursion here – is warmly invited to the Easter service at worship at St. Andrew’s United Church, 812 Bosley Rd. (Just up the road from the Manse!) The service is at 11 a.m. Everyone is welcome to join us for this happiest of Christian celebrations, this joyful Eastertide, in our historic country church.

Happy spring, dear readers, and happy Easter!

Here is a downright poetic thing to do this long weekend

Purdy - Active Arts August Ah, the last days of summer. They are upon us, people. It is hard to believe how quickly July and August have passed. And now we have shorter days and cooler nights – and, looking on the bright side, the glories of autumn in North-of-7 Ontario soon to come.

But hey, we still have the long Labour Day weekend to look forward to! And this evening I am here to tell you about an event that you should attend, should you be of a literary bent, or of a local-cultural-events bent, or of a Prince Edward County bent, or really if you’re just interested in something cool and different to do, on the Saturday of this Labour Day weekend.

It is an event celebrating Al Purdy, perhaps Canada’s greatest poet and a local Hastings County boy (by way of Wooler – which, yes, is probably actually in neighbouring Northumberland County, but only just – and Trenton). Longtime readers will know that I am a huge fan of Purdy, in part because his famous poem The Country North of Belleville so perfectly describes the landscape where our beloved Queensborough and Manse are located. In fact, I’ve made so many references to Purdy and his work, and to Purdy-connected events, since this blog started that tonight I’ve gone and got myself organized and created a new Al Purdy category right here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. If you click on that category on the home page you’ll find all kinds of stuff by me connected to Al.

Anyway: the event I’m going on about is a fundraiser for the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, a non-profit group that has done a miraculous job of preserving and restoring the very rustic A-frame cottage that Al and his wife, Eurithe, built on Roblin Lake at Ameliasburgh. That cottage, as I’ve written here, was the place not only where Al wrote many wonderful poems, but where he and Eurithe welcomed generations of Canadian writers, both established and famous and unknown but up-and-coming. It is a very important place in Canadian literary history – and for those of us in Hastings and Prince Edward counties (and Northumberland County and Lennox and Addington too) it’s right here in the back yard.

While the cottage has been purchased and mostly fixed up, there’s still lots to be done – not only on the property, but to ensure the continuance of a new writer-in-residence program whereby young Canadian poets stay for a few months at a time at the A-frame, pursuing their literary work but also keeping the flame burning for Al and his legacy, and for the magic of poetry in general.

Now, I could tell you all the detaila about Saturday’s event – which takes place at Rednersville, on the shores of the beautiful Bay of Quinte – but you can get a lot of it from the poster that you see at the top of this post. And what you really should do is check out the entertaining and enticing stuff in posts here and here and here and here at the marvellous Purdy-themed blog In Search of Al Purdy, written by our brilliant friend Lindi Pierce. I urge you to go enjoy those posts  – and, if you’d like a good laugh, Al’s poem When I Sat Down to Play the Piano, which Lindi makes reference to in this one.

Raymond and I will certainly be on hand for the event, having been involved to a greater or lesser extent (greater for Raymond, considerably lesser for me) in the A-frame project for the past few years. We’d love to see you there – and to raise with you a glass of a new beer being made by Prince Edward County’s Barley Days brewery in honour of Al, and to financially support the A-frame. Its unusual name, A Sensitive Man, is taken from Al’s legendary poem At the Quinte Hotel, wherein he proclaims himself (even as he is drinking rather large quantities of beer at that classic old tavern) just such a man. As I’m sure he was.

Anyway, an afternoon of music, poetry, theatrical readings, food, celebration of Al Purdy, support of a good cause, and beer called A Sensitive Man – what more could you ask for on the last weekend of summer?

What is “North of 7”?

Highway 7

This photo of Highway 7, which I took this very afternoon, gives you a sense, I think, of what a geographical divide it is between “the fat south/with inches of soil on/earth’s round belly,” as the poet Al Purdy put it, and the “lakeland rockland hill country” of the Canadian Shield, as Purdy also said. Note the rock through which the highway had to be blasted.

If you’re a regular, or even occasional, reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse, you’ve probably noticed me using the phrase “north of 7” with some regularity. If you live in or are from the Queensborough area or quite a wide swath around it, you will be instantly familiar with the phrase and know what it means.

But I always keep in mind that it probably doesn’t mean a thing to readers from elsewhere, and so every time I use it I try to get in some kind of an ever-so-brief explanation – often something as simple as noting that “7” refers to Ontario Highway 7.

So I thought it might be useful, both for readers and perhaps especially for me, to try to give a once-and-for-all explanation so that every time I say “north of 7” in future posts I can just link back to this one (for those who are puzzled and want more information) and so that I won’t have to explain it every time.

Okay, so what is “north of 7”?

Well, to begin with – and the main reason why I use the term so often – it’s where Queensborough is, and thus by extension where the Manse is. Living here makes Raymond and me by definition north-of-7 people.

And yes, “7” is Highway 7, or, if you want to get all formal about it, “The King’s Highway 7” – though why ownership hasn’t been transferred to the current female monarch, who has, after all, been ruling for sixty-two years, is kind of beyond me. I have many times linked to the Highway 7 section of the very interesting website The King’s Highway (thekingshighway.ca) that is put together by Cameron Bevers, who has a vast interest in the geography and history of Ontario’s highways. If you’ve never gone to those links I urge you to check them out: go here to get not only some quick facts about Highway 7, but also an excellent recounting of its history, and here to see some great historical photos of it.

But why does being “north of 7” constitute a state of being that is so different from, say, “south of 7” (or, for that matter, “north of the 401,” or “north of Highway 2“)?

Well, I’m no expert in this stuff, but here’s my take on it. People, if you have information to add, or a different perspective on this locally important subject, please share your knowledge in the comments section!

Basically, in Hastings County, Highway 7 (which runs east-west) is the unofficial yet remarkably accurate demarcation between the rich (agriculturally speaking) lands to the south, down to Lake Ontario, and the Canadian Shield. North of 7 is where the soil thins out dramatically, where rocks and lakes and evergreen trees take over from wide-open fields and big, flourishing farms. Yes, there are pockets of reasonable soil and some nice farms north of 7; but they are relatively few and far between. For the most part, north of 7 is a different kind of country altogether.

It is the country that poet Al Purdy so memorably described in his poem The Country North of Belleville. (You can read all about that poem, and read the poem itself, in my post here). Except when Purdy was talking about “bush land scrub land … lakeland rockland and hill country” he really was describing “the country north of 7” more than “the country north of Belleville.” (I think the latter title just sounded better to him, and it is very possible that more of his potential readers would have twigged to “Belleville” in the title than to “7.”)

“This is the country of our defeat,” Purdy says, taking on the identity of one or all of the would-be farmers who tried to make a go of it in the land north of 7 after it was opened up in the 19th century. It is, he says,

… where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picknicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries’ rubble
                backbreaking days
                in the sun and rain
when realization seeps slow in the mind
without grandeur or self-deception in
                noble struggle of being a fool…

As it happens, there is a just-published book on the very subject of Hastings County north of 7 being “the country of defeat” for early pioneers. It is called The Trail of Broken Hearts (you can read all about it here), and it is by Paul Kirby, a writer and publisher who has done an enormous amount to explore and share the history of Hastings County. The Trail of Broken Hearts of the book’s title is the Old Hastings Road, which I wrote about at length here and which is the perfect symbol for the tough times that people of past generations have dealt with in the land now known as “north of 7.”

Not that there was a Highway 7 in pioneer times, of course. As I wrote here, the local section of the highway was built during the Great Depression as an employment project. Here is a wonderful photo of that time, which I have thanks to Keith Millard, a descendent of an early family here in Elzevir Township, the Kleinsteubers:

Highway 7 under construction, 1932

Highway 7 (in the Actinolite area, a bit southeast of Queensborough) when it was under construction in 1932. (Photo courtesy of Keith Millard)

What is interesting is that when it came to constructing that roadway, the powers that be, whether consciously or unconsciously, did lay it out in a path that demarcated two different ways of living.

But I think it’s fair to say that “north of 7” isn’t just a geographical thing; it’s also a state of mind. Longtime residents have told me they remember the days when if you lived north of 7 – say in Queensborough, or Cooper, or Eldorado, or Bannockburn, or Millbridge, or Gilmour, or maybe way up north in Coe Hill or Ormsby or Bancroft (where the writer of the excellent blog Living North of 7 [livingnorthof7.com] is based) – some people from south of 7 would look down their noses at you. You might be considered the Canadian version of a hillbilly, in other words. And l think there is no doubt that over the years, some hillbilly types have chosen to live in these relatively remote and undisturbed parts. But so have people who just want to get away from it all; if you want to be left alone, this traditionally has been a pretty good place to do it.

I don’t know whether any misguided people south of 7 still look down their noses at those of us who choose to live north of 7. But I do know that times are changing, and areas that were once seen as remote and forbidding are becoming ever-more-sought-after by people – and I’m not talking hillbillies here – who want to live, even if only part of the time, in a place that is quiet and beautiful and unspoiled. Like this:

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So yeah, I think “quiet, beautiful and unspoiled” pretty much sums up north of 7. And I know I am far from the only person who is very proud indeed to call “north of 7” by another term. That would be: home.

At the poet’s house, as at the Manse, company for dinner

Raymond at the A-frame

Here’s Raymond outside the Al Purdy A-frame house, just after we arrived there for a work bee last Saturday morning. What a thrill it was to finally see this famous rustic cottage!

Raymond and I had an interesting morning this past Saturday, joining about a dozen other volunteers to do some repair and cleanup work on a very modest home that is a very important piece of Canadian literary history.

The home is the A-frame house that poet Al Purdy and his wife, Eurithe, built in 1957 in Ameliasburgh, down in Prince Edward County. (Which is the county due south of us here in Hastings County.) They built it themselves because they had no money to pay professionals to do it – a poet’s income being, then as now, pretty sparse – and they built it largely out of materials they managed to scrounge up. It always remained a pretty rustic place, outhouse and all, but over the years everyone who was anyone in Canadian literature paid a visit to the Purdys there, and many of them paid repeat visits. It was a place to talk poetry and literature while enjoying libations – perhaps some of Al’s wild grape wine – and the view out over Roblin Lake, on which the A-frame is built. There are photos of Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood and all manner of writer types hanging out at the A-frame, enjoying the hospitality that Al and Eurithe offered. (You can read more about all that, and see some of the photos, here.)

Chaises longues at the A-frame

I can just picture Al and Eurithe Purdy – or one of them with some famous or not-so-famous literary visitor – relaxing on these chaises longues at the A-frame. (Later in the day of our cleanup bee the grass did get mowed, by the way.)

Regular readers will know that I have a very great admiration for the poetry of Al Purdy, due in part to the wonderful way he describes my own part of the world – the Canadian Shield country where Queensborough is – in The Country North of Belleville and several other poems. I’ve written multiple times about that, and here I told you about the campaign to save the A-frame. The project’s goal was to preserve the rustic old place because of its singular place in Canadian literary history, and to carry on Al’s legacy by setting up a writer-in-residence program so that young poets could come and live and work where Al did.

Well, that campaign has come together nicely. The first crop of writers-in-residence has been named, and the first of them will be living at the A-frame come this summer. Which is why we volunteers were out there Saturday morning, hammering planks for a deck, moving rocks and debris, mowing the grass, washing out cabinets and cupboards, and just generally getting a good start at making the place – which had suffered from water infiltration and weather, and from simply not being lived in – ready to welcome residents. Here’s one photo of the workers doing their thing, on the front deck:

Working on the A-frame deck

(You can read more about the cleanup bee, and about Al Purdy and the A-frame project in general, here, at our friend Lindi Pierce’s excellent blog In Search of Al Purdy. Lindi, an architectural historian, history buff, and writer, has been a driving force behind the A-frame project.)

Our A-frame experience Saturday was the first time Raymond and I had ever been at, let alone inside, the building we’d both read and heard so much about, and I have to confess that I felt more than a little in awe. To walk through the rooms where one of my literary heroes had lived and worked, to touch the furniture and see the books on the shelves and examine the pictures on the wall – well, it was quite overwhelming at first. But there wasn’t much time for being overwhelmed or awestruck, because there was work to do.

One of the jobs that I helped out with was going through household linens – tablecloths, curtains, seat covers, napkins, towels, etc. All were a little on the musty side, but most will be fine for re-use once they’ve been washed and aired out. But while going through them, I found something that I found endearing and, in its own way – I’ll explain – familiar.

It was the placemats. So many placemats!

A-frame placemats

Just look at the depth and variety of Eurithe Purdy’s collection of placemats!

One might wonder why such a small household – Al, Eurithe and their son Jim when he was young – would need all those placemats. Ah, but remember what I said about the Purdys welcoming generations of Canadian writers to the A-frame? Well, those people had to be fed when they visited! And what did Eurithe feed them? Spaghetti. Eurithe made a lot of spaghetti, doubtless because it was cheap and would feed a lot of hungry people at once.

What this all reminded me of was my mother, Lorna, in the days when I was growing up here at the Manse. As I’ve reported here, it was incumbent on the minister and his wife in those days to invite parishioners for dinner. And so pretty much every Sunday evening of all my childhood years at the Manse, my mum made a great big roast-beef dinner, mashed potatoes and gravy and all the vegetable accompaniments (including, of course, jellied salad), plus homemade pie for dessert, for a big group that included the company and our own family of six. And she did this after a long week of looking after four growing children and a big old Manse and working full-time as a high-school teacher. Yikes! (Which might be about how Eurithe felt when she saw yet another carful of visitors coming down the driveway of the A-frame.)

One last thing that I found very endearing about those placemats. Here’s a closeup that I think will allow you to see it:

Spaghetti-sauce stains

People, I am pretty sure those brownish-orange marks are… spaghetti-sauce stains.

Waves of lilacs, in an unforgiving land

Field of lilacs, Queensborough RoadAs I noted just a few days ago, it’s lilac season once again. And yes, I know I’ve also noted that the lilacs are always splendid throughout Hastings County, but really, this year they seem to be putting on an especially good show. The blooms don’t last all that long, but while they are out, it is just a wondrous thing to drive (or bike, or walk) along the back roads and even the main roads of this part of the world.

Today Raymond drew my attention to an extraordinary display, along Queensborough Road southeast of Queensborough. Part of it is what you see in the photo at the top of this post, but the photo doesn’t begin to do justice to it. It is a whole field of lilacs – waves of lilacs. Perhaps you can imagine how lovely the scent of the early-evening air was when I stopped to photograph them.

One of the other pictures that I took contains something interesting that didn’t strike me until I’d returned home and downloaded it. Here’s the photo:

Rocks and lilacs, Queensborough Road

What I like about it is the mix of the lilacs in the background and the rocky area in the foreground. I like it because it says so much about the people who settled this place, who tried to farm the thin soil that just barely covers the rocks of the Canadian Shield here in, as poet Al Purdy calls it, The Country North of Belleville.

Those early settlers often planted lilacs around their homes to bring some springtime beauty to lives that were filled with hard work and harsh reality. Nowadays you see many places where the lilacs still bloom but there are no longer homes; they have been long since abandoned, decayed, torn down, burnt. Perhaps – very probably, in fact – those homes’ long-ago inhabitants finally gave up hope of making a living by farming that thin soil, and moved on.

But the lilacs remain. The lilacs, and the eternal rocks.