It’s strange and wonderful when something out of the blue leads you to the very place you want to be, even if that place never lasts long.
A week or so ago, I received a phone call from a university researcher writing a history of Grindstone Island in Big Rideau Lake, Ontario, where I happened to work as an assistant cook when I was nineteen. In those days the island was the site of a summer training centre on non-violence and peace, run by Quakers. I told her it was like Shakespeare’s green world. An island full of “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”
Thinking back, I remembered a poet who visited the island for a few days. George Johnston in 1971 had white hair, a long white beard, a gently humorous mouth and a way of saying that he wasn’t a writer, he was someone who wrote, as if to dislodge from himself all pretension.
The memory sent me online, where I discovered that he had written a biography of Carl Schaefer, whose paintings of fields and farm houses near Hanover, Ontario made them mythic and rich in emotion. Later, reading Carl, I was drawn into the workings of a truly creative mind, exactly where I wanted to be; drawn into the enormous energy expended, and the results achieved.
An entry from 1934. “Now I returned to my old haunts Hanover for the first time in 10 years, realizing an intimacy in my own environment, a rediscovery of forms I felt I knew well, and could produce with some authority. There was a sympathy too and I proceeded to get down to the bones of the thing, stated in the simplest possible way. Structure again, but now a structure of mood, time & place.”
Then came his rage as developers ate up the land.
And soon enough came the sadness of his wife’s death and his old age, and the end to his painting, too, when he lost the sight of one eye and refused to paint any “one-eyed paintings”.
Yesterday morning I picked up the paper off the front porch and there was the pretty little town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec incinerated by a runaway train carrying crude oil.
Like a war zone, the prime minister said when he visited. But no mention of where his hellbent commitment to deregulation and to the oil industry is leading us.
As I say, my moment of being exactly where I wanted to be didn’t last very long.
Have a look at this painting by Carl Schaefer that shows what used to be: