“When things come to the worst, they generally mend.”*
Following an arduous voyage from Edinburgh, in August of 1832 Dunbar and Susanna Moodie disembarked from their steamship in Cobourg, Upper Canada. They immediately purchased a cleared farm in Hamilton township, where they lived for almost two years. Above is the barn, and the farm property today. There was a barn fire after the Moodies moved on; this is the rebuilt barn dating to the mid 19th century, constructed atop the original stone foundation. You can find the property on the west side, McClelland Road/north side, Bell Hill Road. In her novel Roughing It In The Bush, Ms. Moodie describes a most difficult carriage ride up Bell Hill; I’ve hiked it and she wasn’t exaggerating – I imagine that riding a buckboard on rough ground, up and down a very steep hill was a scary experience for a refined lady from Scottish society accustomed to riding in a Hansom-type carriage.
Welcome to my first – yikesabee, it’s May already – post. However is that possible? Living through it, April felt like a million years long!
This afternoon I am sitting at the small oak table in our den window, looking out over my back garden. The silly tulip blossoms have yet to open but – hallelujah – the Forsythia is beginning to bloom and pale mauve violets have popped up in our lawn (where else would they be?). The clouds have blown on, the sun is shining, it is 18°C and, at long last, it does seem as if we are in the opening stretch of an Ontario springtime in a year when optimism is utterly essential. Mind, it is so much easier to have hope amid all the new growth, the flowers, the returning birds and the greening of the grass – grass that Cam mowed today for the first time in 2020.
My friend Annie and I share a few giggles each year over our joy in our annual re-reading of the Rosamunde Pilcher novels and, through this time of isolation, we’ve both consumed at least two already. This week, though, I’ve returned to two other favourites, The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Roughing It In The Bush. I’m endlessly fascinated by tales of pioneer life, its myriad difficulties and the long periods of loneliness, disconnection and confusion as recounted in the female voice. Indeed, there are many similarities between adapting to wilderness life in a new country and enduring coronavirus seclusion – thick skin is required in both situations.
“Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
Down to just the latitude:
something to be endured
but not surprised by.”**
As heart-breaking as those thirty days of April were for so many the world over, our collective experience was one of unity within the unknown. The same dynamic I imagine the pioneer women experienced, trying to adapt to rustication, their sensibilities completely mangled. In trying to negotiate the drizzle of strange meaning – pioneers trying to endure the harsh life of too few amenities and supplies, people of 2020 trying to cope with a pandemic, in both cases, something to be endured – we’ve all had to grow that protective chapped tarpaulin skin, else how would we ever cope?
Yet when things come to the worst, they generally mend; the pioneers gradually cleared the bush, built homesteads, planted crops, and we gradually flattened the coronavirus curve and helped our friends and neighbours. Those things both cohorts believed they couldn’t live without all ceased to be priorities as routines were reimagined and emphases, by necessity, changed.
Both cohorts are, at one time or another, faced with a pivotal moment: For the new Ontarians of 1832, Dunbar and Susanna Moodie, it was the decision to board the boat in Edinburgh bound for a country they knew nothing about. For the Ontarians of 2020, our pivotal moment has not yet arrived: As the restrictions are gradually lifted, we must decide, do we really want things to go back to how they were, or do we want to create a new and improved normal?
When things come to the worst, they generally mend. My fervent hope is that the world “mends” after COVID-19 and that we 2020 Ontarians come out the other side in a better frame of mind than Ms. Moodie, who ended her novel with the most depressing and ominous of sentences:
“If these sketches should prove the means of deterring one family from sinking their property, and shipwrecking all their hopes, by going to reside in the backwoods of Canada, I shall consider myself amply repaid for revealing the secrets of the prison-house, and feel that I have not toiled and suffered in the wilderness in vain.”*
“Be kind to one another.”***
‘Til next time, y’all…
*Susanna Moodie, Roughing It In The Bush
**Margaret Atwood, “First Neighbours” from The Journals of Susanna Moodie, a book of poetry in which Ms. Atwood writes as if she were Susanna Moodie, fantasizing about her experiences and sensibilities as an immigrant and pioneer woman in 1832 Upper Canada. My dear friend, Annie, gave me this book as part of my twenty-first birthday pressie. British custom (both our mums are Brits) has it that, besides a key, the twenty-first birthday gifts are meant to be items that are saved a lifetime. The main part of Annie’s gift was a lovely pair of sterling silver earrings, the “keeper”, plus this book. ‘Though I still have and still wear my earrings, the book was always the real treasure.