Friday, December 20, 2013


The Thought-Fox

I imagine this midnight moment's forest;
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

- Ted Hughes, from "The Hawk in the Rain" 1957

When looking at visual art, I search for "incidents" in paintings.  That term refers to the specific marks that make a composition or a style come alive.  The incident on canvas is the trace of an artist's hand and eye manipulating paint across the surface.  It may be a flash of colour or an undulating line or a jagged brushstroke, but it's always inspired, and for the viewer, breathtaking.

Ted Hughes' poem "The Thought-fox" speaks of literary incident.  The fox approaches tentatively, testing territory with its nose first, then eyes and body.  Its four paws mark the snow with four progressive, accelerating "now"s  and the course is set - a lonely do-nothing night yields a creative breakthrough; a blank page becomes a resolved poem.

This December night marks the darkest part of the year, a time of intense stillness and cold.  As the snow piles up outdoors,  I scan the line where field meets forest, hunting for an incident, hoping to see a concentrated  "greenness ...coming about its own business."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mary Cannon, 18th century Estate Manager

Mary Cannon was just a girl, a naive 13 year-old, when in 1764 she met Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, an ambitious army officer working for the British.  He wooed her with promises of a genteel life; an improved social status bolstered by the security of land ownership, a country manor house, a steady income and a prestigious Swiss Huguenot family name for the offspring of their relationship.  In exchange, he wanted Mary (or Polly as he called her) to be his housekeeper, mistress and property manager.  DesBarres had acquired large tracts of arable land in Falmouth, Tatamagouche, Menudie, Maccan-Nappan, and Memramcook/Peticodiac.  He envisioned a New World fiefdom that would provide funds for his real interests - expeditions filled with land surveying and cartography - but he wanted someone else to hold down the fort and oversee the day-to-day operation of his empire.

As property manager for DesBarres' colonial holdings (a total of 80,000 acres), Mary was expected to visit the estates regularly, negotiate leases with tenant farmers, collect rents, and monitor improvements, herds of livestock and crop yields.  She was to keep DesBarres informed of all the facts and figures while he was off on a military mission, conducting a survey of the coastline of Nova Scotia.

 DesBarres' work required that he was away from home for six months of the year, sailing with his crew along the bays, inlets, creeks and rivers of the Atlantic shoreline, mapping terrain above and below the water.  During winter months he resided at Castle Frederick, the home base in Falmouth, N.S. that Mary looked after in his absence.  It was a model farm of 7000 acres, with a labour force of 93 people including re-settled Acadian families, Irish immigrants and black slaves.  As the snow fell,  Desbarres and a naval assistant were absorbed in drafting detailed maps, charts and drawings for a 4 volume atlas entitled "Atlantic Neptune."

By all accounts, Mary started out as a capable manager of DesBarres holdings, and handled her administrative duties with gracious authority and fairness.  When DesBarres left for England in 1774 to oversee the publication of his atlas project, Mary was given full power of attorney.  Along with land, tenant farmers and finances, she had five children to take care of, too.

Castle Frederick, Falmouth N.S.

Debarres' sojourn in England extended into a ten year stay, a decade in which "Atlantic Neptune" was published and received with acclaim from government officials, mariners and scholars.  His direct experience and familiarity with the territory earned him an appointment as lieutenant governor of the newly-formed colony of Cape Breton. He returned to Nova Scotia in 1784, and was soon joined by (surprise!) his English wife Martha Williams and their two children.

Meanwhile back at the castle, poor Mary Cannon was overwhelmed with debt and a string of legal battles stemming from tenants who refused to pay their rent. The farmers had tricked her by planting main crops on land adjacent to Desbarres' property, then claiming that they owed nothing to the landlord.  She sent letter after letter to DesBarres explaining her difficulties and imploring him to provide funds.  He ignored her requests.

DesBarres' map of Nova Scotia from the "Atlantic Neptune"
 When New Brunswick became a colony distinct from Nova Scotia in 1784, Mary neglected to re-register the tracts of land that DesBarres owned in the Memramcook/Peticodiac area.   Was it simply a careless oversight, or did she deliberately miss the deadline as an act of revenge?   Perhaps abandoned Mary had some degree of sympathy for the Acadian tenant farmers, who, like herself, had become victims of DesBarres' empty promises.

During the 1760s, Acadians had returned to the areas of Menudie and Memramcook after the "Grand Derangement" only to find their farms sold to DesBarres.  Having no other choice, they reluctantly accepted the demotion to service as tenant farmers, working the land and owing half of the harvest to their master.  DesBarres was happy to have the Acadians settle on his farmland, as they were the only group who knew how to operate and maintain the system of aboiteaux and dykes already established in the region.  DesBarres wrote:
"The estate of Menudie on the Elysian Fields consists of 7/8 tract of 8,000 acres. It contains nearly 3,000 of dyked lands, cleared upland and orchard.  In 1768, I settled 10 families hereon.  Their number speedily increased.  To each family was allowed 200 acres, including a proportion of dykeland, cleared upland and wood to themselves and their heirs forever."

 By the time New Brunswick was declared a separate colony, the Acadians had been working the land for over 20 years and were eager to regain independence and assume ownership of property.  When they discovered that the farms were not legally registered to DesBarres, they applied for land grants. There were evictions, arrests and court cases, and several families (the Bruns, Comeaus, Melansons) packed up and moved north to Shemogue and Cap-Pele.   Bitter disputes over ownership dragged on until 1841 when the government allowed the sale of the former DesBarres land for the price of one dollar per acre.

In 1794 DesBarres hired a new estate manager, John MacDonald, who toured the properties and reported that things were in a general state of financial and agricultural disarray.  He informed his boss that Mary had taken up with an Irish labourer at Castle Frederick, and that the pair were planning to sue him for money owed.  MacDonald urged DesBarres to take legal action.  He charged Mary with general mismanagement and collusion resulting in the loss of valuable properties.  The case was still in the Court of Chancery in 1842 when Desbarres, age 103, died.  A decision on the matter was never reached, but it was a sharp insult added to injury when Mary Cannon learned that DesBarres had left his entire estate to his wife Martha and their eleven children.

Mary had little to show for her union with DesBarres and many years of loyal, unpaid service as land agent.  Burdened with debt, her daughters Amelia and Martha Sophie ended up in a poorhouse in Windsor, N.S.  In 1846, Mary's grandson purchased the outstanding mortgage on Castle Frederick.  Direct descendants of Mary Cannon and J.F.W. DesBarres own the farm at Falmouth which is now protected by the Archaeological Land Trust of Nova Scotia.

In her final letter to DesBarres Mary Cannon wrote:

"The thread of life is only brittle at best and neither you nor I may long be permitted to settle our long standing affairs. I have had a hard life and would wish peace on just terms for what remains."

N.B.  The maps, charts  and drawings of  DesBarres' "Atlantic Neptune" are in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich .  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Gravel" by Alice Munro

 "Dear Life" by Alice Munro is a collection of short stories that highlights the brilliance and the quirks I admire in this author: the refined craftsmanship and willful weirdness of the grande dame of Canadian literature, now a distinguished Nobel laureate.  Her stories describe events in small town settings that defy the reader's expectations of narrow, prim lives, plots that thrust ordinary people into unconventional dilemmas.  Munro's great strength lies in exposing ways that ambition, imagination and oddity can disrupt, alter or enhance a life.   The drama, often presented from overlapping perspectives, is not always as simple as the clean, precise surface of Munro's narrative suggests.  We are left to question underlying motives, reassess dubious characters and try to unravel stubborn knots in a chain of minor incidents that escalate into serious misfortune or metamorphosis.

The story"Gravel" stands out as a work that might be described as a modern morality tale.   It features a mother who leaves her stable, loving husband for a bohemian, hippie actor and pays for sexual dalliance, distraction and lifestyle makeover with the tragic death of her eldest child.   The story is told by an adult narrator ( I'll call this character Sibling) who examines the events leading up to sister Caro's drowning in a water-filled gravel pit.  His/her five year-old self (Munro does not assign a gender to the narrator) is an unreliable witness, but Sibling looks back intently, analyzing the incident from an adult perspective in an attempt to come to terms with feelings of personal guilt.  

How much of a memory is factual, and how much is invented?  Munro joins separate threads of the story to weave a chequered pattern - one part imagination, one part truth - that is the fabric of all recollection.  She brings a famous ghost into the mix with the mention of Neal (mother's boyfriend) performing as Banquo in a theatre production of Macbeth.  Act 3, Scene 4  of Shakespeare's drama features Banquo's ghost appearing to Macbeth, seated in a chair at the banquet table.  Some directors prefer to play the scene with Banquo haunting from offstage, leaving an empty chair.  Others bring Banquo onstage, visible to the audience and Macbeth, but not apparent to the other actors.   The invisible ghost heightens Macbeth's isolation, inner turmoil and brink-of-madness state.  The visible, onstage version allows the audience to share Macbeth's perception and identify closely with his experience.   Either way, the ghost is an intruder at the party.

Neal, as substitute for natural father, is the most obvious ghost, but Munro makes him less potent than the invisible one that plagues Sibling. The circumstances surrounding sister Caro's drowning form a vision that continues to haunt, puzzle, torment, and nag.  For the surviving sibling, there is always a phantom figure seated at the table; an unnerving presence that no one else can see.  

Sibling's voice wavers between juvenile and mature as the story is sketched out.   Munro has her main character regress to the diction of a five-year-old as the crucial directive is reported.

" I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and mother something.  
That the dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she'd be drowned.
Blitzee.  Drownded.
But Blitzee wasn't in the water.
She could be.  And Caro could jump in to save her.

I believe I still put up some argument, along the lines of she hasn't, you haven't, it could happen but it hasn't.  I also remembered that Neal had said dogs didn't drown.
Caro instructed me to do as I was told.
I may have said that, or I may have just stood there not obeying and trying to work up another argument."

Vague bits of information mulled over have the effect of destabilizing Sibling's account;  like small pieces of gravel, they shift under each footstep.   Munro concludes the story with a meeting between the adult Sibling and Neal.   Their conversation leads to Neal's admission of the reason for his failure to respond to the emergency - he was too stoned at the time and didn't know how to swim.  He says that pondering the accident is a waste of time and offers Sibling some advice based on his own breezy, hedonistic philosophy.

"The thing is to be happy," he said. "No matter what.  Just try that.  You can.  It gets easier and easier.  It's nothing to do with circumstances.  You wouldn't believe how good it is.  Accept everything and then tragedy disappears.  Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you're just there, going along easy in the world."

There is no satisfactory solace or formula for closure in Neal's happy-go-lucky approach, and Sibling is left carrying the burden of questions and doubts about what actually happened.  The ghost remains onstage.

 "But, in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself in, as if in triumph and I'm still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash."

N.B. The story "Gravel" by Alice Munro is available online in The New Yorker magazine.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Le Presbytere at Pre-d'en-Haut

In Pre-d'en-Haut near Memramcook a white church stands on a promontory overlooking the Petitcodiac River.   It's a registered heritage building, protected for posterity by the government of New Brunswick.  Unfortunately that designation does not extend to the house next door - le presbytere or rectory.
L' eglise Notre -Dame de l'Annonciation, built in 1934

The rectory

1945 photo

The large brick house with the wrap-around veranda is the site of a garage sale organized by parishioners.  The church ladies have all furniture, quilts, books, dishes and miscellaneous priced in an "everything must go" clearance sale.   Their dilemma is a common one for dwindling congregations: the archdiocese will not permit the sale of the rectory, and the church cannot continue to maintain an empty building.  Things are deteriorating and demolition looms.  Next week the electricity will be cut off.

The rectory was built in the 1940s under the direct supervision of the priest, E. Azarias Masse.  He was a college professor from Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec who took on the work of stabilizing the Pre-d'en-Haut community, improving economic conditions for its residents while enriching their spiritual lives.

The Reverend Father  E. Azarias Masse, c.s.c. (1898-1967)

The building was not only his home base, but served as headquarters for the Pre-d'en-Haut Credit Union.   In the front office there's a large commercial grade vault built into the wall that dates from 1944 when Father Masse established the bank in the rectory, providing reasonable loans for farmers.   He encouraged the locals to cultivate strawberries, visited farms to bless the seeds and conducted a special high mass service when a lack of rain threatened the crop.  The extra prayers worked, and the ensuing shower, specific to the immediate area, saved the strawberries in the dry summer of 1946.

Oak office chair with leather seat

Set of Century Encyclopedia, published in 1899

The word "skean" defined and illustrated
We purchase an oak chair, a set of antique reference books, a box of liturgical silks - the remains of an era when the Catholic church was the heart and soul of the community.  We come home with some nagging questions, too.  Couldn't the historic house be renovated and used for another purpose, perhaps a daycare center, a museum, a medical clinic or a bed and breakfast?   Once the rectory has been torn down, a significant piece of  Pre-d'en-Haut history will be gone forever.  If prayer could save the strawberries, then isn't it worth a try...?

Thursday, October 31, 2013


In the past few weeks our family tree has been amended to record two important events - one death and one birth .  On September 22, my uncle David Nichol died.  On October 4th, my grandson Oliver Douglas Maminski was born.  Condolences and congratulations overlapped, and somewhere between a sad farewell and a thrilled hello,  I marked the changes on the heritage website where our tree is planted.  When a death date is entered, a solemn black band appears in the upper left hand corner of a person's photo.  When a new baby is added to the tree, a festive bunch of balloons floats above the child's name.

David Nichol (1940-2013)

Oliver Douglas Maminski, born in Edmonton on October 4th

Charting family history today may as quick and easy as click and save, but looking through a book of "Quilt Masterpieces" by Susanna Pfeffer reminded me that in the past women used a much more painstaking method, working needle and thread to accomplish the same task.  I discovered the cemetery quilt of Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell in this book and the graphic depiction of a graveyard on a bedspread made me consider how we go about commemorating a life.

"Graveyard" 1839, pieced, embroidered and appliqued cotton, 85" x 81"
Embedded in a field of Lemoyne star blocks, the cemetery is shown from an aerial perspective, with the coffins of the maker's deceased family members positioned in the center square.  Living relatives were represented as caskets-in-waiting, lined up along the borders of the quilt.  When someone in the family died, their personalized casket would be removed from the border and resewn in the central graveyard plot.  When a child was born into the Mitchell family, a new coffin was cut from fabric, labelled and added to the quilt edge.  The idea of stitching a patchwork blanket of death may seem ghoulish today, but no doubt it provided comfort for the woman who made it, both in the slow labour of crafting the quilt and later, while sleeping under it.  She lived in Kentucky at the time the quilt was created, but her two sons, an infant and a teenager, were buried in a cemetery plot in Ohio.  The quilt depicted the layout of their final resting place, complete with a rose-lined entrance, arched gate and picket fence.  When Elizabeth Mitchell went to bed at night and pulled the graveyard quilt up to cover her body, she must have felt closer to her beloved family members.  

"When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun."

- William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet"

Monday, September 23, 2013

Wild Remedy

I came back from the summer Baltic cruise with a lingering upper respiratory illness. The forum members at Cruise Critic call it the "Connie Cough," a post-holiday ailment reported by passengers (like me) who traveled aboard the ship "Celebrity Constellation."  It's not as bad as SARS or Legionnaire's disease, but nevertheless, landed me in a Montreal hospital on the return trip.

Sometimes we prepare for life's challenges well in advance, without a hint of premonition.  Before leaving Canada I spent an afternoon clearing weeds from our vegetable garden and noted clusters of white daisy-like flowers blooming in the yard.  The delicate wildflower that invaded my lawn is Common yarrow or Achillea millefolium.  The story of Achilles receiving yarrow from the centaur Chiron for use as a battlefield remedy at Troy came back to me as I picked a bouquet of the flowers and hung it upside down in the garage to dry.  In a garage with a rack of sharp tools used by a hobbyist woodworker, you never know when you may need to dress a bleeding wound.

Common Yarrow

Related to the chrysanthemum, yarrow has a strong, sweet scent
I had no inkling that the dried yarrow would prove to be a lifesaver for me, but after trashing a bottle of codeine-laced cough syrup that caused nightmares and a dopey morning hangover, I turned to the herbal drugstore.  The dried yarrow flowers and leaves can be brewed into a soothing tea that relieves cold and flu symptoms by opening blood vessels and making you sweat the nasty virus out of your system. The first cup eased the hacking and restored a sense of calm.

Yarrow tea to the rescue
I read with interest that yarrow stalks, believed to be part of a sacred plant, were used in the ancient Chinese method of divination recorded in the I Ching.  Consulting the oracle once involved dividing a bundle of 50 sticks into groups, counting them and translating numbers into a hexagram made up of Yin (broken) and Yang (solid) lines. A simpler method using the heads and tails of three coins became popular during the Han dynasty.  Today the I Ching is consulted via the computer by typing a question and clicking six times - a much quicker, though less authentic, way to get a reading.

I pour another cup of yarrow tea and ask the online Book of Changes for advice on improving my general well-being.  Hexagram 59 appears.

In this symbol of dispersal or dissolution, the wind carries mist away.  The following words of wisdom provide a recipe for recovery:

If you have begrudged, forgive
If you have torn down, repair
If you have injured, heal
If you have judged, pardon
If you have grasped, let go.

"The Wounded Angel" 1903 by Hugo Simberg is Finland's most famous and most enigmatic painting.
 The artist completed it while recovering from a lengthy illness.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


I was standing at the edge of a canal in Amsterdam, taking a photo of the houses along the Nieuwe Keizersgracht, when I noticed an engraved metal plaque near my feet.  It had names on it, dates and places that stood out: Auschwitz, Sobibor, Westerbork.

Jewish memorial on the Nieuwe Keizersgracht

The memorial was conceived as a neighbourhood project by residents who realized that the houses they were now living in were once the homes of a Jewish populace, a community almost completely obliterated during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.   Between 1941 and 1944, thousands of  Jews living in the Plantage district of Amsterdam were rounded up and deported by train to concentration camps in Germany.  Many died in the gas chambers or from disease, malnutrition or maltreatment at the hands of the oppressors.  Of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands, approximately 34,000 survived the war.  Those who returned to Amsterdam found their homes either destroyed or occupied by new families, many of whom were Dutch NSB (Nazi collaborators.)
The house at Nieuwe Keizersgracht 12 - a heritage building

The poignant reminder of residents expelled from just one building on one street in Amsterdam brings to light the enormous loss of history and culture, personal and collective, that occurs when one group decides to eliminate another.  On this side of the Atlantic, in the southeastern part of N.B. where I live, expulsion and deportation happened in 1755 when the British gained control of Fort Beausejour and wrestled power away from French forces.  When the resident Acadian population (farm families who had been settled in the area for 100 years) refused to pledge allegiance to the British crown, Colonel Charles Lawrence took a drastic approach, ordering his troops to forcibly expel all Acadians from the region.  "If fair means will not do you must proceed with the most vigorous measures possible, not only compelling them to embark, but in depriving any who may escape of all means of shelter and support by burning their houses and destroying everything that may afford them the means of subsistence in the country."

Ships hired from a Boston mercantile firm were loaded with groups of up to 300 Acadian men, women and children.  The vessels embarked from Chignecto Isthmus near Sackville N.B. and sailed to ports in the Thirteen Colonies - Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, New York, South Carolina, and Georgia.  No passenger manifests were kept, so we have few personal details of the families deported, but it is estimated that 11,500 individuals were sent out of the Maritime provinces.  Many died aboard the ships due to overcrowded conditions and epidemics.

The amazing part of the "Grand Derangement" is that 3000 of the surviving Acadians came back to the region ten years later.  Unfortunately they found that their farms had been taken over by the "Planters" from New England and a number of Yorkshire gentlemen who had been granted land by the British government.  One famed cartographer employed by the British Navy, Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, claimed ownership to 80,000 acres of prime land.

The re-settlement of displaced Acadians brought life to uninhabited areas of New Brunswick, especially the places where soil was poor, and farming was hardscrabble.  They adapted to new circumstances, became fishermen and established the smoke houses and fish processing plants that still operate in coastal villages of N.B.

When I stood on the street in Amsterdam reading that list of names, the loss of Mokum's rich Jewish heritage was keenly felt.  By contrast the full Acadian story, an account of the successful founding of the first European settlement in Canada and its horrific destruction, has never been adequately commemorated.  Perhaps we haven't really come to terms with that sad chapter in our history.

Saturday, August 31, 2013


I've been away on a Baltic trip, travelling from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg, Russia aboard a luxury cruise ship. Our ports of call on this amazing journey included Warnemunde, Stockholm, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Copenhagen.

My travel companions were husband Robert and his grandchildren Sara and Jonathan, 12 year-old twins.  This was a first-time cruise for all in our party, so we boarded the ship in Amsterdam with only a vague brochure-fuelled notion of what it would be like.  Previous trips to Europe have always been self-guided tours involving marathon suitcase lugging, deciphering foreign train schedules, standing on street corners looking for a restaurant, washing underwear in hotel sinks, muddling along in spite of crowds, traffic, weather, roadblocks, detours, bomb threats and other challenges.    We have always accepted the fact that the verb "to travel" comes from the French "travailler" which means that work is involved.

At sea
The Baltic trip was more of a breezy holiday, a complete break from the usual routine.  I enjoyed a total disconnection from the Internet.   Days at sea were spent reading in a lounge chair on deck, watching the wake of the ship, drinking green tea and eating sushi.   No emails to answer, no spam to delete and nothing to search Google for.  My personal guideline for the trip was simple:   Be. Here. Now.

For the 12 year-olds, a trip without the Internet was akin to a failure of an essential life support system.  These are children belonging to a generation raised with cellphones, video games and apps that turn real experiences into virtual ones though a series of seductive, dancing, touch-sensitive, backlit screens.   Grandpa had requested that no electronics other than digital cameras accompany them on the trip, but their mother (shame on her) had provided an iphone.   The twins suffered withdrawal symptoms after Amsterdam, and by Day Two of the cruise, we noted pouting, complaining, lack of energy, short attention span, general despair as their device failed to connect to the German network.  The magnificent castle we visited at Schwerin, Germany was less impressive than the McDonalds at the Bahnhof, with its promise of wi-fi.  At this point, I suggested we order two Happy Meals.

Schloss Schwerin

McDonald's, Schwerin train station -  looking for a hot spot
When the wi-fi failed to connect, we faced a total meltdown, complete with tears and screams of "I want to go home!"   After lengthy discussion about homesickness, internet addiction, and travel etiquette, we gave in and  bought the wi-fi package offered on the ship at a ridiculously expensive per-minute rate, with a deadly slow-paced connection.  The deal was that the twins could use the Internet while on the ship, but were required to leave the iphone locked in their cabin while we toured the ports of call.  This compromise was a great relief for all concerned and it was smooth sailing for the rest of our trip.

Highlights of the Baltic included:

  •  the Vasa Museum, Stockholm and its comprehensive presentation of a restored ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628
  • the Nobel Museum, Stockholm where we learned the six categories of international prizes - Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economics.  What a surprise to find out that Nobel laureates' signatures grace the underside of the chair seats in the museum cafe! 
  • Medieval architecture in Tallinn, Estonia contrasting the ultra-modern art museum KUMU
  • Opulence of the Tsar's winter and summer palaces, St. Petersburg, Russia.  Baroque gold, amber, marble, silk, mosaic and wood decoration in every corner, ceiling and floor of every room.  Over the top artifacts include a private pavillion where the table was set on the main floor and hoisted through the ceiling to the second level for guests of Peter the Great.  This practice prevented servants from eavesdropping on intimate dinner conversations.
  • the Glyptotek, Copenhagen, with its fine collection of classical marble sculpture.  An excellent presentation of the working sketches and sculpture of Edgar Degas.
  • Facades of medieval houses in Tallin, Estonia
  • Old Town, Tallinn

    KUMU art museum, Tallinn
Ballroom,  palace of Peter the Great

Baroque decoration with gold leaf

Hand-painted silk wall coverings

Baby satyr seated on a monumental palace vase
Matisse at the Hermitage 
Onion domes, Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg
Fountains at the Grand Peterhof Palace, Russia
Glyptotek collection, Copenhagen

The cruise was comfortable, pleasant and fun, but for my taste, a far too easy, laid-back vacation.  In the end, I didn't have the distinct feeling of accomplishment that comes from finding your own way in a foreign country, making do with less-than-ideal conditions and accepting the serendipity of chance encounters, wrong turns and scenic backroads.   I don't relish an itinerary that includes a formal dress code, bingo games, happy hour at the martini ice bar, zumba classes and ballroom dancing. A second class rail pass and a map are all I need for a fully enriched European adventure, complete with off the beaten path discoveries and plenty of self-guided wandering. 

A few years ago, while driving in the Aveyron region of France, we stopped a local farmer to ask for directions to the next village.  Gesturing with his hand in a snake-like motion, he said, "You take le zig, and then le zag."  That's a perfect description of the way I prefer to travel.

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel's sake.  The great affair is to move."                                                                                  - Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Icons in Grand Barachois

The historic church in Grand Barachois is full of radiant light - not just the glow of the sun's rays streaming in through its tall windows, but an inner illumination generated by a series of traditional icon paintings. Artist Luc Castonguay has produced an exquisite group of images that refer (as genuine icons are meant to do) to  sacred works of Russian masters. The small exhibition mounted in the former sacristy offers viewers more than the dazzle of golden halos adorning Biblical figures; one comes away with insight into an ancient practice that is based on prayer, governed by rules and aimed at mediation with the divine.  While contemporary art emphasizes personal expression and novelty, the icon maker remains almost anonymous and forever faithful to the past.  Imagine an invisible hand.

L'Eglise St.-Henri-de-Barachois, built in 1824, is one of the oldest standing Acadian churches in N.B.

Luc Castonguay, "Entrance to Jerusalem" from a Russian icon
"Entrance to Jerusalem" (detail)
The icon maker refers to his craft as "writing an icon" rather than painting. There is dictation directing the careful work, from the studied lines of historical examples, the time-honoured techniques of teachers and  inner discipline that reflects reverence for sacred subject matter.   This art form is rigorous and sober and often involves a period of fasting.

Luc Castonguay, "The Visitation"
"The Visitation" (detail )
Entering a place where stylized figures are flat, facial features are elongated, perspective is wonky and pictorial elements are out of proportion may seem strange, but the icons depict scenes and symbols that are meant to be other-worldly, so all the oddity and quirks settle after a while and begin to look perfectly correct.  I love the distorted architecture in the background of  "The Visitation", fantasy buildings with pink towers draped in red cloth to mark the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Each step in the process of icon writing is a refined symbolic gesture that traces a path from material to spiritual.  A table in the gallery holds the tools of the iconographer's studio: lime wood panels, rabbit glue, chalk, natural pigments, wine, eggs, vodka and 23 kt. gold leaf.

Natural pigments include azurite, vermilion, and lapis lazuli.  These are ground and mixed with egg yolk and wine.

The final touches are pure white highlights that add a spark to the image, like the tiny crescents that glimmer in the eyes of an archangel.  The faces are far from life-like, but look as if they are illuminated from within.

It is an uncommon (and oh, so refreshing!) experience to find oneself face-to-face with purity, grace and timeless beauty in a work of art.  I leave the gallery feeling blessed.

Aidan Hart, a scholar and iconographer who lives in a hermitage in Shropshire, England, states the following:

"Father Vasileios, the abbot of Ivron monastery on Mount Athos once said to me that there are epochs where it is difficult to get things right artistically and there are epochs where it is difficult to get things wrong.  We are in the former type of epoch.  The mechanisation of our age and the desire to build quickly has meant we are not surrounded by the beauty that comes from using natural materials.  Our intuition of what looks right and what doesn't is not so developed if we grow up amidst the cheap and synthetic and the ugly.  Mass production means we can make more easily but not always more beautifully."   

-"The Renewal of Sacred Art: Timeless principles and Contemporary Challenges"  2013

Luc Castonguay, "Angel of the Golden Hair" from a Russian icon, 12th c.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Peas, Please

The Acadian gardener from across the street took one look at the system of stakes and netting installed in our backyard and suggested that I've gone overboard, planting 22 double rows of peas.  Last year's crop was so delicious that I decided to go big in 2013 and build on beginner's luck. I listed my reasons for loving peas.

  • they like cold weather
  • they are fast-growing and early to harvest
  • they do not attract insect pests
  • they contain saponins, a healthy blend of phytonutrients with anti-oxidant properties
  • they add nitrogen to the soil, replenishing the garden for next year
  • they can be blanched and frozen  (much easier than canning)
  • they taste so green

Perfect peas

In order to deal with the bumper harvest we set up a pea-shelling station in the garage.   Robert constructed a work table from a sheet of plywood and some old pallets.  On these hot, humid, July afternoons it is pleasant to sit on a high stool absorbed in the hands-on, repetitive task of shelling peas while listening to a symphony of lawn mowers and weed-cutters performed by the neighbours.  It's not as gentle and pastoral as the tinkle of cowbells that M.F.K. Fisher associates with pea-picking in the Swiss Alps in her "Alphabet for Gourmets", but the drone of lawn maintenance machinery is the typical soundtrack for this exceptionally verdant Canadian summer.

Timing is important to make sure that the natural sugar in the peas doesn't turn starchy, a loss that can ruin the flavour within a few hours of picking.  The fresh peas are rushed to the kitchen, blanched for two minutes in boiling water, chilled in a sink of ice and packed into freezer bags.

Cooling off

 I was thrilled to find a simple recipe in a Swiss cookbook that makes good use of the empty pods.  As the harvest is processed,  I prepare large batches of this soup and freeze it without the addition of cream (that rich ingredient is entirely optional, and can be added later, if you wish, at the time of serving).  In the middle of January, a bowl of pea soup will bring back the joy of mid-summer bounty; the memory of a mountain of crisp pods in a wicker basket on a makeshift harvest table.

Swiss Peapod Soup

6 cups pea pods, topped and tailed
1 tbsp. butter or margarine
5 small onions, chopped
4 large outside lettuce leaves
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup cream
salt and pepper
chives for garnish

Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat, add the onions, cover and let them sweat for 8-10 minutes. Do not brown.  Add the peapods, lettuce and stock to the pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, covered for 20 minutes or until tender.  Puree the mixture with a stick blender or food processor.   Strain the fibrous strings from the soup by pressing through a sieve.  To serve hot, return to the pot, add cream, salt and pepper, and reheat without boiling. To serve cold, chill for 2 hours, swirl in the cream, sprinkle with chopped chives.

Lunch is served at the Peabody residence

"If even a few of the pea pods begin to ripen, young pods will not only cease to form but those partly advanced will cease to enlarge... It is inexcusable that a gentleman, having a garden of his own, should be served with peas otherwise than in the very highest state of perfection, which they are not, if allowed to become too old, or too large."                                      

- Fearing Burr Jr., "The Field and Garden Vegetables of America," 1863