From Cross Lake to Shoe Lake

20 04 2013

Cross Lake to Shoe Lake 1981

Planting potatoes in June in Cross Lake, Manitoba, is a dangerous job,  especially in Katherine McKay’s garden.  She lives beyond the Sinclairs’ shack, close to the Narrows where the Nelson River bellows at the shriveled forest and the wind picks up speed for its morning charge through the town.

Raging like an angry bull, Katherine’s husband is leaning over the fence, shouting something unfriendly in Cree, then doubling over with laughter as he points at us gardeners in the enclosure. The villagers had warned us about him.  “He hates white people with a vengeance.”  No trace of Katherine who had ordered the garden.

Brad and I are on our honeymoon.  Book–blearied university students, sick of the stale atmosphere of libraries and labs, and looking for a summer of fresh air and adventure, we impulsively volunteered with a relief organization to create kitchen gardens with the Cree in order to promote local food production, healthy eating and active living, and to decrease dependency on the Hudson’s Bay Store.

Just days after our May wedding, the bush pilot dropped us off with a bag of seeds, rakes, hoes and a rotor tiller.  He promised to pick us up at the end of August, then rattled his plane up into the clouds and was gone.  Swarms of black flies descended to welcome us.  Nobody else.

But that was last month.  Right now, I am shivering in Katherine’s freshly tilled garden, despite three layers of sweaters on my back. But it’s a garden, another precious garden to add to our other three.

Gardens are not a real hot item on this reservation. We’ve tried everything to promote them: a booth in front of the Bay Store, radio announcements, community involvement.  It was only when we dressed up like a tomato and a cob of corn and paraded through town, waving our garden-promoting banner, that a few kind souls took pity on us and signed on.

This morning, however, something other than potato pieces was seeding itself –  a memory.  I recall another village in a forest –  also on a narrows.  Cedar Narrows, Brad had called it.   I visited Dorset two years ago with Brad and his family.  We stayed in a primitive cottage on Shoe Lake.   I did not connect with it then.  Recently moved back to Canada from Europe,  I secretly found the endless, Canadian wilderness terrifying and the cabin awfully dingy.   But here, half a continent away, Dorset and Shoe Lake are reconstructing themselves in my memory, in all of its quaintness and natural beauty.”

“Hey, Brad”, I holler through the wind. “I think I’d like your uncle’s cabin in Dorset now. Could we spend some weekends there this fall and winter?  Would your uncle Gord lend us the key?”

Well, I can quickly see that my comment is setting off firecrackers in Brad’s imagination..  It is taking immediate root and growing into an idea, a whole plan in his mind. Shoe Lake is his favourite place in the world, where he has spent all his summers since he was a baby

“Elizabeth, let’s post-pone our studies for a year. Move to the uncle Gord’s  cabin and spend the year learning about the bush, canoeing, hiking, and hunting, instead. We’ll have time to think, read, paint,  and pursue whatever we want.  We’ll live simply on our savings, get paying jobs next summer, then pick up our university studies,  refreshed.  Anyway, I don’t know if engineering is right for me.

Our reckless and spontaneous plan warms us to the core.  The  Dorset Venture becomes a beacon of light that illuminates every activity with purpose.  Suddenly it is important to learn about survival and the ways of the bush from our Cree neighbours.   We borrow Mother Earth News magazines from George, the Metis, and start eating lambs quarters at lunch and catch fish from the Nelson.   I read about the benefits of cattail silk and sew it into my sleeping bag for warmth, that is,  before I notice the tiny worms in the silk.    After one week, when we feel totally sure about our plan, we phone home.

“What? You’ve gone mad with love.”  “Finish your education first.”  “We don’t like that plan at all.” were the responses.   Uncle Gord was the worst.  “Old Charlie Bean froze in his sleep up there.  Could happen to you.  You could burn the cabin down and no one would even know.  Neither of you are familiar with wood-stoves.  If something happened to you kids up there, I’d carry that guilt around for the rest of my life. “

But, in the fall, he hands over the key when we offer $60.00 a month to rent the cabin and assure him that we’ll keep an eye on his own big cottage.

One cold, October evening, Brad gallantly carries me over the threshold and sets me down in the middle of an uninsulated, dark and damp, mice-infested shack with no running water, except for what is leaking through the holes of the roof and the broken chimney. I hear a strain in Brad’s voice as he welcomes me to my first home.  No surface is without mouse droppings.  Night is falling.  My quivering candle guides me to a musty bed in the corner and I crawl in,  button-lipped. Before I fall asleep,  a mouse runs down my leg.   The luster to our dream is starting to fade.

All of that happened thirty-two years ago.  We cleaned, polished, and patched, that cabin, hauled water, built an outhouse, and made a warm, happy home.  We had a fabulous year and learned a great deal about ourselves and each other, but it will be the subject of another blog.

We did, indeed, go back to our formal studies at university,  and on to our professions, but  we vowed we would return to Dorset to raise our family.  Six years later, we bought the lot with the cabin from Uncle Gord.  Two years after that, we quit our professions and moved back into that cabin with a toddler, Katherine and a newborn, Sarah Jane.   But that story will also have to wait.

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Let it Snow!

14 12 2012

The world outside my studio today is a grey, cast-iron caldron of popping popcorn and I am peeking over the rim watching the fluffy stuff jump, swirl and pile up and up.

I wish those white blobs were edible. My lunch date at my friend’s house was cancelled due to this big snowfall and I’m starving. Like her, most of us in Muskoka live isolated at the end of windy, hilly, back roads that are not plowed very often. When it snows like this, we just learn to change plans quickly and sit tight until we can budge.

Thankfully, I don’t have to budge for another hour. Tom Allan is playing Vivaldi and I am reminded just how well Vivaldi and snowy days go together. The two seem to be mimicking each other with their pristine, joyful dances.

It is a great joy just to see the snow finally return to Dorset. It certainly took its time this year and I was beginning to worry that global warming was going to deprive me of one of my favourite painting subjects. I love it when the winter snow dresses the trees like royalty in stately mantles of ermine and lays down a thick spongy carpet over the impassible, debris-strewn forest floor. Snow transforms it into a smooth, white desert that I can stride easily across on racket-shaped snowshoes into the remotest of places.

Winter Garb

Winter Garb  by Elizabeth Johnson  24×20″ acrylic on canvas

As I watch the first big snow come down in Dorset, I think of A. Y. Jackson’s First Snow Algoma, of A. J. Casson’s big blobs in First Snow, Grenadier Pond  and of Kathleen Moir Morris’ snow-laden Montreal scenes. Many Canadian painters have even managed to sneak those beautiful snow shapes into their spring and summer paintings. Whether they were put there subconsciously or intentionally, they are there.  Just have a look at Lauren Harris’ clouds and Arthur Lismer’s blossoms in Georgian Bay, Spring. What about Tom Thompson’s Lily Pads? I bet those painters were longing for the snow to come back soon after the spring melt.

A gallery owner once advised me not to paint winter scenes. “They don’t sell,”  he said.  He might have just as well told me not to be Canadian. Snow is the trademark of so many Canadian painters.

My hour is up. I must go out into the popping, dancing whiteness and find my son for his violin lesson. He will be playing a Vivaldi concerto for his teacher this afternoon.





A Different Kind of Landscape Painting

6 06 2012

“All gardening is landscape painting.”

Alexander Pope

My mother grew a huge vegetable garden in which we four children had to put in a certain number of hours of planting, weeding and picking.  My favourite memories of the garden concerned peas.  I loved planting the peas.  They looked like soft green buttons  sewn on the umber-coloured shirt of a sleeping giant,  and I was the seamstress as I dropped each pea- button, one to two inches apart, into the trough.   When they grew into plump pods, I’d eat them raw, cramming whole fistfuls into my mouth.  No snack can compare to those freshly shelled garden peas.   Even the pods were delicious, once you peeled off the inner membrane.

It took me many years to have a vegetable garden of my own.  But now I have one and it is a miracle.   Two years ago, my husband and I purchased the  land on which my husband’s business sits (Portico Timber Frames).   The soil itself is mostly sand and rock – fill that had been dumped into a swamp.   But  the site has sunshine and it is flat, both rare features in Muskoka and the Haliburton Highlands and I began to dream of the possiblility of growing a garden there.    Since the soil grew scruffy weeds, I wondered if it might just grow vegetables, too.  I could just see that desert bloom.

After reading Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening,  I went to work trying out her no dig, no till, no weeding system of gardening.   After mowing down the weeds and grass, my husband and I built long rectangular boxes with wood from Portico’s scrap pile.  I lined the bottom with 4 sheets of wet, overlapping newspapers to kill the growth.  On top, I dumped layers of manure, coffee grounds from Tim Horton’s, peat moss, chopped leaves,  straw, top soil, compost, anything I could think off that might make a good soil.  Then, I sowed my seeds, flowers and veggies all mixed in together.

Today, it is a verdant, bountiful garden that feeds my family all summer long and provides a quiet and refreshing place where people can stroll and rest in.  Much more has grown up in this garden.  My daughter opened a wood-fired pizzeria in my garden (mypizzaonearth.com).  My new studio opens out onto the garden.  My husband and nephew built an English-style brick pathway and patio in the garden.  My little garden developed further to include a burgeoning Dorset community garden where members meet to garden, trade plants and gardening tips and to socialize.   Birds love to visit the garden, too.  Miracles do happen. Deserts really can bloom.

As I dropped the peas into the soil this afternoon and was transported back to my mother’s garden,  I looked up at my own beautiful garden with is tall spires of garlic, its deep blue irises, its bright yellow-green lettuce, and fragrant herbs. I realized that, while I paint for a living, I now live in a painting.  My surroundings are also my canvas.  Gardening is just another form of landscape painting.   No wonder I am totally absorbed by it.





A Cultural Event

25 04 2012

I was a starry-eyed bride when I first moved to the boonies with my groom. It was late fall and all the summer people had left long ago.  No one else lived within a radius of three kilometers and beyond that was a hermit.  The two big social events of the week were the long snowshoe into town to get mail and supplies and to warm up by the pot-bellied stove at Robinson’s General Store, and again, to go to church on Sunday .

Back then, a special cultural event was to have people over for dinner.  It was a big operation to get them in our roller-coaster road in winter.  Once they were there, the guests could never fully relax, either because they were so anxious about getting out again, especially if it was snowing, or because our cabin was uninsulated and the temperatures outside fluctuated between -30 and -40 C.   The poor souls rarely took their coats off throughout the meal or afterward.  In any case, besides entertaining, a cultural event was also a day-long snowshoe, a bonfire and  picnic in the snow, or stargazing on our backs in the middle of the frozen lake while the wolves howled around us.

Now, thirty years later, I am attending the 9’th annual wine and cheese cultural event of our hamlet.  My, how things have changed in Dorset since the 80’s. While we sip our fruit wine, and look at original art of local artists (Yes, I am here with my paintings.), local saxophone musicians, singers, poets, and writers entertain us.  It’s all so smooth and urbane.  I close my eyes to see if I can fool myself into thinking that I am really in downtown Toronto.  It actually works for a few seconds.  When I pop my eyes open again, I am happy to find myself sitting in the same old Dorset Rec Centre gym, beside Joanne again.  Only now she’s all dressed up. Quite a transformation from this morning when we were here in our sweats doing downward dog side by side in the same spot.

I like the overlap.  There’s something  real, and homey about bumping into each other over and over again in different contexts.   Joanne’s also in my book club, my tai chi class, and my church.  We can never become too proud or sophisticated or cultured because we have all seen each other in the undignified happy baby yoga pose and we know each others problems and have prayed together over them in church.

While I still love the old cultural events that connect me to the land and to a simpler way of life in the bush, I enjoy the new, too, especially in my own little hamlet.  I learn a lot.  I am reminded that Joe, who works with me in the community garden, is one fantastic saxophone musician.  Tina, whom I only ever see pushing the grocery cart around our general store, can write splendid poetry.   I never noticed before what a great speaking voice Mary has until I listen to her as the MC of the whole cultural evening.  She’s always quietly selling tickets for the Concert Association of Huntsville.

It’s an manageable drive to Toronto to see the Picasso art exhibit,   or to hear Yo Yo Ma play cello or Margaret Atwood speak whenever the need to see the greats presses. We’re not missing out on much.  Up on the Canadian shield we give the everyday artists the stage.  We cheer them on and watch them evolve.  They are real people.  Such a tiny hamlet has a lot of artistic talent and we get to have an evening of fun and discover a bit more about our community members at our annual Evening of Wine, Words, Music and Art.