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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The great lone land

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jul. 1, 2003

It is shared knowledge for all Canadians. Is it not telling that when we wish to make a statement, we cross the country? At the moment, a 51-year-old man named Malcolm Scott is sitting buck naked behind the wheel of a motor home in the hope of promoting the benefits of "naturism" as he drops in on nudist colonies between Halifax and Victoria.

And if you think the drive between Sault Ste. Marie and Dryden a tough haul, clothed or unclothed, just try rolling across Canada in a wheelchair — or running across it on one leg.

They called this endless landscape The Great Lone Land back in 1872 when, five years after Confederation, Sanford Fleming decided to lead a grand expedition across the new country to see what had come out of all that big talk in Charlottetown and Quebec City.

The Fleming expedition went from Halifax to Victoria — the same distance the naked motor-home driver is trying at the moment — and calculated they covered 1,687 miles by steamer, 2,185 miles by horses, including coaches, wagons, packs, and saddle-horses, nearly 1,000 miles by train and 485 miles in canoe or rowboats.

The new Dominion, recorded George M. Grant in his published account of that early trek, "rolled out before us like a panorama, varied and magnificent enough to stir the dullest spirit into patriotic emotion."

We may, at this time of year, be rather more quiet and less demonstrative than Americans when it comes to national birthdays, but it may also be that Canadians are simply acting more in keeping with what they celebrate: the solitude and tranquillity of the land beyond the settlements.

Decades after Grant talked of patriotism springing from the landscape, a young Pierre Trudeau was sent to this same park to polish up his English. He came from Montreal to attend Taylor Statten Camps on Canoe Lake, the same lake Tom Thomson painted and died on, and it was here that Trudeau gained his lifelong love for the canoe, the paddle and the backpack filled with all the "worldly goods" one requires.

Years after those first canoe trips, Trudeau penned an essay he called Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in the Canoe, in which he said, "I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism, but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those who founded it."

There have always been those, however, who felt that vastness must be filled to have true value. In the 1840s, the Vatican fully anticipated that Newfoundland would emerge as a powerful metropolis of North America by 1870, estimating that the population might reach two million. And in 1887, promoter Edmund Collins told the Canadian Club of New York City that, "Alone, the valley of the Saskatchewan, according to scientific computation, is capable of sustaining 800,000,000 souls."

So, too, is the head of a pin.

"If nature has anything to teach us at all," Saskatchewan writer Sharon Batula wrote in The Perfection of the Morning, "her first lesson is in humility."

Feeling slightly overwhelmed by it all is something that comes naturally to Canadians who live through five-and-one-half time zones, who know what it is to pass a last-chance gas station or wait for a winter road to firm up, people who can appreciate what Prairie poet Yvonne Trainor was getting at when she asked, "Where do you run/ when your mother can stand outside/ and look six miles in any direction?"

There is no such luxury in a place like Algonquin Park unless, of course, one climbs one of the old fire towers that are no longer necessary in this age of aircraft patrol and satellite. Here, and in bush from one end of the country to the other, the sensation is less one of staring at a landscape than one of standing in one — and perhaps it is this singular Canadian experience that explains the continuing popularity of Tom Thomson.

There is something about The West Wind that blows through all Canadians, even those seeing Thomson's painting for the very first time. And yet no one attending the recent exhibitions of his works — currently at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario — would disagree with what Lawren Harris once said about his friend.

It was here, along the same routes that David Chang travels today, that Harris believed Thomson felt finally free of "the machinery of civilization."

Some believe the landscape and climate form Canadians — reserved people who have to reintroduce themselves to their neighbours each spring, yet hardy people who play a game others think overaggressive — but it would be naive to think this northern expanse is for everyone.

"There are those who find the wilderness exhilarating," British travel writer Stephen Brook said in the late 1980s. "I am not one of them. The expanses and vistas of Canada frustrate those who, like myself, often prefer the detail to the grand design. Canada's mystique is its spaciousness, its northern emptiness. To me it is oppressive."

Other writers, almost invariably born and raised elsewhere and come to Canada late, have felt much the same. Susanna Moodie, who came out to the colony with such great hopes in the summer of 1832, eventually declared that "my love for Canada was a feeling very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell — his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave."

Surely it was such writing that gave rise to Northrop Frye's famous theory of a "garrison mentality" among those who wrote down what they saw all about them — a collective imagination, Frye felt, formed by "a tone of deep terror in regard to nature."

Frye, sitting at his desk at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, even postulated that such fear was the first experience of the traditional immigrant as ships edged into the Gulf of St. Lawrence "like a tiny Jonah entering an inconceivably large whale."

Forgetting for the moment that there were few steerages with wall maps for immigrants to form such an educated impression, Frye should have realized that weeks and months at sea with typhoid and scurvy, vomit and death would make the calm waters and green banks of the St. Lawrence appear like heaven itself.

Even Susanna Moodie's initial response was one of delight. "Never had I beheld so many striking objects blended into one mighty whole!" she wrote in her journal as the Anne neared Quebec City. "Nature had lavished all her noblest features in producing that enchanting scene."

I prefer to think Frye, in letting his own imagination run away on him, got it wrong, at least among those who come to live more than to write. The immigrant experience has been far less to fear the new land than to appreciate it, deeply, to stand in awe, yes, but not ready to flee.

My own experience, so indelibly shaped by this rocky point, has been that people were far more alarmed by streetlights than by shadowed paths. In fact, if I took Frye's Bush Garden and substituted the word "city" every time he uses the word "nature", it would pretty well hold true for how my parents and most people we knew felt about their vast country.

It cannot, of course, hold quite so true for my generation, now almost entirely city settled, nor for almost all of those newly come to this land.

And yet, for reasons that are sometimes understandable — a distant family farm, aboriginal heritage, a history that somewhere includes fishing, mines, logging, the railway — and for reasons no one can quite understand, there remains this enormous connection with the land.

Some might call it false memory. Better, I say, to think of it as true roots.

On the hill back of the rocky point there is nothing left of the log cabin but remnants of the magnificent stone fireplace the old ranger put in with his own hands.

The quartz is missing, and the lovely granite stones with the fine mica flakings.

And yet Canadians will understand when I say it still burns.

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