Friday, January 31, 2014

Talking to things

The techies tell us that the integration of voice recognition in everyday household things like toasters and fridges will allow us to talk to objects and control them without lifting a finger.  We will soon be accustomed to telling the stereo to pipe down, the thermostat to bring room temperature up and the bathtub to fill with water.  Some things will talk back, reassuring us that systems are in order and confirming when the requested task has been successfully completed.  As we make use of the smart devices around us, they'll be able to anticipate our daily needs and adapt performance to personal lifestyle patterns.

Conversing with objects to get chores done sounds like an amazing technical breakthrough that will not only make life easier, but change our relationship with the inanimate.  Mechanical things will be enhanced with sunny personalities that are responsive and helpful, and the line between living and non-living will no doubt become blurred.  We'll have to acquire a whole new vocabulary to describe our interaction with artificially intelligent devices.

In the language of Mi'kmaq natives, all nouns are classified as either animate or inanimate.  Here are some examples:

Animate snowshoes
deer - lentug
mountain - gmtn
raspberry - gmu'jmin
maple tree - snawei
eel - gat
smoking pipe - tmaqan
snowshoe - lasquaw
star - gloqowej
sun - na'qu'set
moon - tepgunset

Inanimate basket
church - a's'tuo'guom
sugar - sismo'quon
blanket - a's'un
tobacco - tmawei
rock - guntew
canoe - gwitin
water - samqwan
river - sipu
basket - ligpenigen

The classification of a noun as either animate or inanimate does not always appear to be logical, or follow conventional concepts of living and non-living.  Stephanie Inglis, professor of aboriginal languages at Cape Breton University gives a clearer explanation.

"A mountain is intrinsically connected to a larger essence.  A rock has become separated off from the whole - it is "less connected."...  In the Mi'kmaw language there is an underlying semantic theme based on a dichotomy of "connectedness" or "belonging to a greater wholeness" or "oneness" versus "lack of connection" or "disconnection."

The distinction is also re-defined by Dr. Marie Battiste, a Mi'kmaq professor from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

"The objects around us with which we have an intimate relationship are animate and the things with which we don't have a relationship are inanimate.  It has nothing to do with being alive or dead."

Talking to an object was a common practice for Native Americans; after all, every creature or thing was imbued with a vital spirit or manitou.  One could improve outcomes by using positive words.
An account of a native guide in Maine who spoke to tree bark as he fashioned it into fishing line proves the effectiveness of verbal persuasion.

"One old man with whom I traveled had the beguiling habit of singing songs to the pulling of the bark because he thought the bark would come off stronger and freer on account of it.  Some of the strips not more than two fingers in width and almost as thin as paper held our combined weight when we tried to swing from them. "See what my song can do, boy! said he."      - Frank Speck, "Penobscot Man" 1940

I sometimes talk to my vacuum cleaner, sewing machine, computer and coffee-maker, with mixed results.  Perhaps, as the experts predict,  there will come a day when the things at home are all connected, controlled and animated by software that makes them obedient and highly efficient.  Until then, I'll rely on pleading, occasional coarse language and the magic of a restart button.

N.B.   Here's a link to an excellent dictionary of the Mi'kmaq language that includes audio clips of native speakers pronouncing complex sentences.  Enter an English word in the search box and you'll be given the Mi'kmaq equivalent.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Winter fabric

Our winter exercise routine includes a brisk walk along "Sentiers Hibou Blanc" or "White Owl Trails" in Cap-Pele.  The forest trails are immaculately groomed by a man on a snowmobile who drives around first thing in the morning raking ridges into fresh snow, adding a zen-like pattern to the path.  It seems a shame to tread on such perfect artistry, but we do, leaving our ragged footprints for the groom to erase the next day.  We are grateful for this careful manicuring of the wild woods; without it, we would be stuck in knee-deep white drifts.  

Groomed snow
In his book "Winter" (CBC Massey Lectures) Adam Gopnik describes the romantic Japanese view of winter as an exquisite, but impermanent effect.

"In the Japanese vision of winter, in Japanese poetry, and above all in Japanese prints - particularly those of Utamaro, Hiroshige, and Hokusai - in the imagery of the "floating world," there's no notion that winter has in any way fallen from the hand of God, or is in any way evidence of cosmic organization.  The Japanese idea of winter simply speaks of winter as simultaneously empty and full; the emptying out of nature by cold, it's also the filling up of the world by wind and snow. Winter in the Japanese aesthetic is above all modish, it's above all an occasion for sensibility, it's a season that, in every sense, suggests not the enduring mysteries of "natural" meaning but the beautiful transience of creation - snow arrives, and then snow passes, just as a fashion does, or a love affair."

Hiroshige, "Evening Snow at Kanbara," 1834, woodblock print on paper

The Japanese harness the characteristics of winter in the creation of a fabric called Ojiya Chijimi. Choma, a native plant fibre is bleached by exposure to the sun and the release of ozone from evaporating snow. The resulting hemp fabric is lightweight, absorbent, dries quickly and is prized for making summer kimonos.   In the novel "Snow Country" by Yasunari Kawabata, Chijimi cloth is used as a symbol for beauty and purity.

"The thread was spun in the snow and the cloth woven in the snow, and bleached in the snow.  Everything from the first spinning of the thread to the last finishing touches was done in the snow. "There is Chijimi linen because there is snow," someone wrote long ago. "Snow is the mother of Chijimi."

"From ancient times there were houses that specialized in bleaching.  The weavers for the most part did not do their own.  White Chijimi was spread out on the snow after it was woven, colored Chijimi was bleached on frames while still in thread  The bleaching season came in January and February under the lunar calendar and snow-covered fields and gardens were the bleaching grounds.  The cloth or thread was soaked overnight in ash water  The next morning it was washed over and over again, wrung and put out to bleach.  The process was repeated day after day and the sight, when, as the bleaching came to an end, the rays of the rising sun turned the white Chijimi blood-red, was quite beyond description."

Laying Chijimi fabric out on the snow for bleaching

"The thread of the grass-linen, finer than animal hair, is difficult to work except in the humidity of the snow, it is said, and the dark, cold season is ideal therefore for weaving.  The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has a feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness."

The White Owl path takes us through groves of birch and maple, stands of cedar, pine and balsam fir, areas of dense growth where each frozen branch is draped with a layer of snow.  It's a landscape full of contrast, empty of sound, hardened by brutal cold and softened by a swath of white corduroy under foot.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Textiles by Torma

At first glance, a work by Anna Torma looks like a complex drawing.  Move closer, and the squiggly, meandering lines become individual stitches, hand sewn on layers of silk.  Embedded in the network of threads are images of animals, faces, objects and plants, sketched with child-like abandon.

Torma's work "Transverbal 2" was exhibited at the Centre Culturel de Bouctouche last fall in a show featuring recent acquisitions by the New Brunswick Art Bank.   The artist, a native of Hungary and graduate of the Budapest University of Applied Arts, now works in her home studio at Baie Verte, NB.

Anna Torma, "Transverbal 2" 2010, hand embroidery on silk 150 x 140 cm
"Transverbal 2" detail 

Elevating craft to the level of high art is one of Torma's stated objectives.  Traditional embroidery is used to trace and fill in the contours of a line drawing applied to the surface of the cloth.  This is slow, snail-paced art-making, and the careful process of needlework clearly defies the immediacy of Torma's initial sketch.

I like the obvious contradiction of random, graffiti-like drawing realized through the deliberate, one-by-one accumulation of hand stitches.  Torma's work is at once rambling and precise, instinctive and controlled, accidental and intentional.  

Anna Torma at work in her studio
In her artist's statement about the "Transverbal" series, Torma refers to a stage in early childhood before speech.

"I was inspired by my children's early drawings when they were very young and the communication between us was based on signs, drawings, body language, guessing and empathy.  I loved that early age when they were "languageless", before they learned the verbal communication."

An interview with the artist is online at the World of Threads Festival website.

Works by Anna Torma can be viewed at the following venues:

Jan 17 - March 9  New Brunswick Museum, Saint John NB
Jan. 9 - Feb. 8   Hamilton Artists Inc, Hamilton ON
Oct. 3- 24    Page & Strange Gallery, Halifax NS

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Have you noticed that the first item on every Canadian news report this year has been a weather-related story?  Reporters are using phrases like "flash freeze" and  "polar vortex" to describe conditions that are severe, but not entirely unexpected news in this part of the world.

Yet another fierce storm blasted the Maritimes last week, with gusting winds, blowing snow and temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celsius.  We decided to stay indoors by the wood stove with good books and a supply of leftover mincemeat tarts, leaving the snowdrift that blocked our front door in place.   With hazardous road conditions and cancelled airline flights across the country, we're not expecting visitors.

The fortress wall

Parking lot, Home Hardware, Cap-Pele

Ice and snow load on trees

Conversations with relatives in other provinces quickly turn to tips for winter survival: how to stay warm, stay fed, and stay happy.  In the heart of Toronto, my sister had no power for two days after the pre-Christmas ice storm. It was cold inside, and too slick and dangerous outside to walk or drive anywhere.  Her kind-hearted Italian neighbour, who has a gas stove, brought over some hot soup.

 In Edmonton, my daughter sounded more than a bit frazzled after a week of bitterly cold temperatures kept her trapped in the house with an active preschooler and a new baby to look after.   Out west they call the stuck-at-home blues "cabin fever," but here in New Brunswick folks use the term "shack-wacky."   Cabin or shack, it doesn't really matter; after a prolonged period any four walls can feel like a prison cell.

As the NB storm raged on, I turned to historical accounts of long ago bad weather woes.   The first recorded European settlement in the area was an expedition led by Pierre Du Gua de Monts on the St. Croix Island (now part of Maine.)  In the summer of 1604  he chose to build on a site that must have seemed strategically ideal,  a safe spot in the middle of a river with good anchorage and unobstructed views of surrounding territory.  In advance of the cold weather, his crew of 74 men erected a palisade and 19 buildings, including a storehouse, dwellings and a chapel.  The team included Swiss mercenaries, French artisans, a priest, a surgeon, a black translator who could speak the Mi'kmaq language and the royal cartographer Samuel de Champlain.

Champlain's map of St. Croix Island

 Champlain kept a journal in which he described a very harsh winter that locked ill-prepared newcomers in waist-deep snow from October to April.   Scurvy wiped out almost half of the colony.  Here are some passages from his first-hand account.

"During the winter all our liquors froze, except the Spanish wine. Cider was dispensed by the pound.  The cause of this last was that there were no cellars under our storehouse and that the air which entered by the cracks was sharper than outside.  We were obliged to use very bad water and drink melted snow, as there were no springs nor brooks; for it was not possible to go to the mainland in consequence of the great pieces of drifted ice by the tide, which varies three fathoms between high and low water  Work on the hand-mill is very fatiguing, since the most of us, having slept poorly and suffering from insufficiency of fuel, which we could not obtain on account of the ice, had scarcely any strength, and also because we ate only salt meat and vegetables during the winter, which produced bad blood."

"The cold was sharp and more severe than in France, and of much longer duration."

"It would be very difficult to ascertain the character of this region without spending a winter in it; for, on arriving here in summer, everything is agreeable, in consequence of the woods, fine country, and many varieties of good fish which are found around here.  There are six months of winter in that country."

The St. Croix settlement was dismantled in 1605 and the surviving men relocated to Port Royal N.S.

Mary Fisher, a Loyalist of Dutch descent, endured the winter of 1783 camping in a tent with her family near Fredericton, NB.

The Grandmother's Story

"We sailed from New-York in the ship "Esther" with the fleet for Nova Scotia. Some of our ships were bound for Halifax, some for Shelburne and some for St. John's river. Our ship going the wrong track was nearly lost. When we got to St. John we found the place all in confusion; some were living in log houses, some building huts, and many of the soldiers living in their tents at the Lower Cove. Soon after we landed we joined a party bound up the river in a schooner to St. Ann's. It was eight days before we got to Oromocto. There the Captain put us ashore being unwilling on account of the lateness of the season, or for some other reason, to go further. He charged us each four dollars for the passage. We spent the night on shore and the next day the women and children proceeded in Indian canoes to St. Ann's with some of the party; the rest came on foot.

We reached our destination on the 8th day of October, tired out with our long journey, and pitched our tents at the place now called Salamanca, near the shore. The next day we explored for a place to encamp, for the winter was near and we had no time to lose.[127]The season was wet and cold, and we were much discouraged at the gloomy prospect before us. Those who had arrived a little earlier had made better preparations for the winter; some had built small log huts. This we could not do because of the lateness of our arrival. Snow fell on the 2nd day of November to the depth of six inches. We pitched our tents in the shelter of the woods and tried to cover them with spruce boughs. We used stones for fireplaces. Our tent had no floor but the ground. The winter was very cold, with deep snow, which we tried to keep from drifting in by putting a large rug at the door. The snow, which lay six feet around us, helped greatly in keeping out the cold. How we lived through that awful winter I hardly know. There were mothers, that had been reared in a pleasant country enjoying all the comforts of life, with helpless children in their arms. They clasped their infants to their bosoms and tried by the warmth of their own bodies to protect them from the bitter cold. Sometimes a part of the family had to remain up during the night to keep the fires burning, so as to keep the rest from freezing. Some destitute people made use of boards, which the older ones kept heating before the fire and applied by turns to the smaller children to keep them warm.

Many women and children, and some of the men, died from cold and exposure. Graves were dug with axes and shovels near the spot where our party had landed, and there in stormy winter weather our loved ones were buried. We had no minister, so we had to bury them without any religious service, besides our own prayers. The first burial ground continued to be used for some years until it was nearly filled. We called it "The Loyalist Provincials Burial Ground."

Mary Fisher's eighteen month-old grandson survived the winter of 1783 and grew up to become one of the province's first published historians.    "A History of New Brunswick"  by Peter Fisher is available online, and his biography is outlined here.

The weather outside is frightful, but we are counting our blessings:
  • a warm fire
  • food
  • water
  • music (CBC radio)
  • good company (each other)
  • words from the past, reminding us that this, our winter of inconvenience, will pass.

The snow plow clearing our driveway