Landscape Changes Over Centuries; Rural to Urban

by Don Malcolm

Landscapes are a central theme to all of humanity, probably as much a state of mind as of geography. All cultures, and individuals within those cultures, hold within their very centre, like an engraving on the mind and heart, a vision of landscape that is personal and precious.

What seems to one the lodestone that informs his journey and yearnings through life may appear to others commonplace. But, perhaps it is the larger canvas, made up of all the personal and precious landscapes, burned into the hearts and minds of the world s peoples that makes our planet the beautiful place it is. 

So it appeared in the breathtaking photograph beamed back to earth from Apollo 2, thousands of miles in space, without political boundaries and turmoil, a jewel shining in the universe. 

My personal landscape lies little more than a hundred miles west of Ottawa, up the Madawaska River watershed to a place where time was measured by passing seasons. The surrounding hardwood hillsides heralded each season in turn. 

The brilliant colours of autumn presaged the coming of winter when grandfathers selected, from stocks of seasoned beech, ash or maple, boards which would be sawn, planed and shaped by hand tools, the ends boiled in a cream can on the kitchen stove then bent on a home-made press to produce skis. After an application of sealing wax or crayon, applied with a hot clothes iron, the child whose turn came round at last got a new set of skis. 

We recognized no difference between cross-country and downhill skis. It was thrill enough for us to be able to travel on top of the deep snow, making trails through the forest, labouring up the steep slopes and gliding down. Some of the trails covered considerable distances, crossing marshes, lakes and ponds, allowing access to places we couldn’t go in summer, a track home to guard against becoming lost, our own private nature trails. Access to a forest in winter was a boon to inquisitive children. Wild animal footprints were numerous, prompting imaginative young minds to speculate as to what had crossed the trail. Was it a bobcat, a lynx perhaps? Are those fox tracks there? Did a timber wolf cross here, or was it only an old redbone hound, having slipped his chain, working the runway of a snowshoe hare? 

My landscape was a place in time, where enough was plenty, waste was sin and excess was unimaginable. 

In winter, horse-drawn homemade sleighs provided transportation. Going home late at night after a visit in the community, snuggled down in hay and covered with blankets, was a delightful experience for children. On dark nights when the moon did not compete, stars provided a dizzy- ing canopy to quicken a child’s imagination and speculation about other worlds and things unknown. When the moon shone silver-bright on the snow our landscape was a spangled wonderland of frost crystals, shadows, and visions both familiar and new that rivalled the starlit canopy. The music of harness bells and the creaking and hissing of sleigh runners on frosty snow must surely intrude on, and enhance, the “life symphony” of all who came out of that experience to the world beyond. 

Light wagons served in summer. They were noisy, rough, utilitarian, dusty, and had far less magic than the sleighs. 

Spring brought a warming of days and the rising of sap in the maple and birch trees, the making of maple syrup, sugar, taffy on snow and birch vinegar. Late spring melted the snow and ice in the lakes and streams and decorated our landscape with a sudden rushing extravagance of wildflowers, and opened the buds that spread a fresh mantle of green over the hardwood hills, and promised summer. 

Time ground slowly to summer for the children in the one-room school that served our community. The west wall of the school contained the windows that let the light into the classroom. There on a windowsill the pencil sharpener was mounted. Many pencils were reduced to shavings by children turning away on the crank while gazing out at the steep hill that rose a few hundred yards to the west, which we called Ab’s Mountain, or just “The Mountain.” From the top of that hill looking westward two lakes could be seen where we knew that trout and northern pike lurked, and farther to the southwest another range of hills hid the lake where the bass waited. To the north and east was a panorama of scattered houses, small cultivated areas, sometimes a few cattle and horses, and ridge after ridge of hills to the Madawaska and beyond. To look in any direction from the top of the hill, it seemed the whole world we knew lay in a bowl formed by the ridges that surrounded our vantage point. 

Twice a year the teacher would treat the pupils to an excursion to the top of The Mountain. These outings occurred when the autumn colours were at their most glorious, and in those long, long, dragging days before the summer holiday, when the pencil sharpening activity reached a frenzied pace. 

But summer always came and was gone far too quickly. It was a time of lazy bare-foot days at the lake, swimming and fishing for bass, or following one of the many small streams, tempting eastern brook trout with a baited hook dangled on a string from an alder sapling fishing pole. 

At least once each summer we hitched the horses to the wagon and followed the ancient wagon road to the Madawaska River, about five miles to the north of our home, where we would spend a few days. In our excitement we children usually ran ahead, but not too far because there were bears. We slept in an old log shack on the riverbank or outside under the pine trees if it didn’t rain. Nights were filled with the sound and fresh clean smell of the river, the night calls of birds, both familiar and strange, and sometimes unidentifiable sounds that caused us to lie very still under our covers and wonder about dangerous wild animals, ghosts and such. Each dawn found us awake, anxious for whatever the days had to offer. 

Throughout the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, in the heyday of the great riverdrives, the forests adjacent to the river had been logged, the timber floated down the river to Quebec. Tales of the hardships of that occupation, the excitement, bravery and tragedy, were an inherited part of our folklore. Upstream from our campsite the Snake Rapids held a particular interest for us. There the river drivers had hammered large metal eye-bolts into holes drilled in the rocks, to secure side booms to divert logs from areas where they would get caught in the twisting, tumbling turns of the rapids and cause logjams. Repeated warnings from elders urged great caution there. 

Below the rapids, on the shore of a small bay near our campsite, was a clearing known as the Antoine Field where it was said that Algonquin peoples had camped for uncounted centuries before the arrival of strangers in their land, and the imposition of Indian reserves. How they must have enjoyed their river that had become ours. It was easy to imagine dark-eyed children watching us from just beyond the ring of light from our campfire at night. 

We never got enough of the river. No matter how long we stayed, we left with great reluctance. Those trips to the river were one of the highlights of our simple lifestyle. 

Summer was not entirely a time of loafing; in fact it was probably our busiest time. There were gardens to plant and tend, cows to milk, calves and pigs to feed, wild hay to harvest in the swales, a winter’s firewood supply to cut, wild berries to pick and preserve. Adults organized trips to the hills where wild blueberries grew. Children were not allowed to go alone because of the bears. Trips to the blueberry hills were enjoyable community picnics. 

We were self-sufficient and secure in our routines governed by the circles of the seasons. Looking backward, it’s possible to determine when our world began to change. 

Occasionally in summer, cars travelled the narrow dirt roads of our community. People came to visit. Some came to try to sell something. Some, it seemed, just came to look. We, in turn, were fascinated by the cars that brought them. 

Sometime shortly before the beginning of World War 2, the first radio came into our community. Each night, in the houses that had them, we gathered round those radios enthralled with the exploits of Jack Armstrong, The Lone Ranger, Tom Mix, and many others. Presentations of music such as we had never experienced before, ranging from folk through jazz to full orchestra to classical, filled the houses at full volume. On Saturday nights, from Nashville Tennessee, the Grand Ole Opry afforded us our first exposure to American culture. The radio brought us news from around the world and close to home, and from Ottawa, at 10 A.M. each weekday, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory time signal, by which our world began to set its watches. 

If there was one historical juncture that would pinpoint the beginning of change to our community, and others like it, possibly it was the coming of the radio with its tightly timed programming, including the time signal from Ottawa. Time gained a new significance that required adherence. 

Radio, also, with its commercial messages, made us aware that there were many things in the outside world that we wanted. 

Although logging had been a traditional activity, concentrated in those areas close to the river, the pace had lessened somewhat since the days of the river drives. Lack of local capital and equipment denied local residents the opportunity to harvest the considerable stands of timber in the surrounding Crown forests. 

Before the close of World War 2, small to medium sized lumber companies from outside the community established sawmills and began, under permit, to harvest timber on Crown lands. Local residents who had not already gone to the cities to work in the factories of the war effort were able to find employment in the timber industry, although the pay was quite low. 

In winter, taking advantage of frozen streams, swamps and lakes, the trees were felled, cut into log lengths and skidded with horses to selected locations. From those locations (skidways), before spring break up, the logs were loaded on large logging sleighs and hauled by heavy draft horses to the mill sites. On Saturdays, when school was out, children petitioned teamsters to be allowed to ride on top of the loads. 

The physical appearance of our landscape began a gradual change as the population, for the most part, shifted activity from subsistence farming to wage earning, and to dependence on towns outside the community for the supply of food and other necessities. Our life-style, our self-reliance, our security began to slip away. 

Over time the fields that had pastured cattle, horses, pigs and sheep, and produced food for the families that lived there, grew over to brush, the pioneer species that begins the natural process of reforestation of unused cleared areas. 

When the war ended, industries quickly shifted focus from manufacturing war materials to satisfying the needs and wants of the general public. They had a lot of new technology, the development of which had been funded by public money, and they were anxious to reap the corporate profit waiting in the hungry market place. After six years of war with its accompanying hardships, rationing and deprivations, people were hungry u Landscapes continued for consumer goods. The stage was set. Waiting in the wings was a catalyst that would carry the market place to unprecedented heights. 

Consumer financing would be the willing genie to fan the flames of desire in the general population, while stoking the furnaces of production in the manufacturing sector. From electric can-openers to clock radios that turned on or off automatically at pre-set times, toys and gadgets staggered the imagination. Household furnishings, labour saving appliances such as washers, dryers, refrigerators and freezers raced each other off the assembly lines. So frenetic was the pace of introduction of new and improved models that many items went from new to obsolete in less than two years. The arrival of television would hold the attention of North Americans for decades up to the present time, and become a tool of the manufacturers and advertisers. 

Cars. They hit our community like a Christmas morning. Consumer financing put private automobiles within the grasp of anyone who had a steady job. Automobile manufacturing had been severely curtailed during the war years. When car makers geared up after the war, those who could afford the new models traded in their pre-war models and bought the new ones. The older cars were bought by the less affluent. Before long the previously cultivated areas that had sustained families became littered with broken down automobiles and broken dreams. 

But it was a time of increased mobility and promise. Young people approaching maturity went away to the cities, to further education, to jobs in factories, offices and stores. Young men would be lured by the glamour of long-haul trucks, which were beginning to crowd the ever-expanding highways. Others would work at highway construction. Another war was under management in Korea. Some went to the armed forces. 

In all communities, landscapes steadily changed as highway systems expanded to accommodate more and more vehicles. Millions of acres of prime farmland disappeared under pavement and concrete overpasses as cities expanded over the agricultural land that had justified their original establishment. Now long-haul trucks haul heavily subsidized food crops from the southern US and Mexico to satisfy the appetites of northern cities. Meanwhile, the prime mover of our considerable mobility, the world’s finite supply of oil, is diminishing. We will be faced with some tough choices in the future. 

Humans are a marvellous species. We function best, achieve most, when faced with adversity. When we recognize problems we set about to head them off. Perhaps the future will see a drift back to a community style of living, with emphasis on sustainable practices where families produce most of their food on the land on which they live. Maybe we will consider trading our lawn mowers for hoes. 

Whatever the future holds, there will still be those who look back in fondness to personal and precious landscapes, burned into their hearts and minds. 

We would do well to remember a line from a Robert Service poem: “We bore the famine worthily, but we lost our heads at the feast.” 


[From WS September/October 2003]

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital