Strong and Square
I am descended from a long line of strong and square women. No-waisted, broad-shouldered, big-breasted women. Also short. These are my Mom’s people, a mix of German and Czech. When I was a child I thought my great-grandmother Anna was so short because age had shrunk her, but looking at photos I realize she was never more than 5 foot 2. Anna died at 99, when I was seven. I did not know much of her nature, we were so far apart in age as to barely be related.
During summers at Eagle Bay, we would visit her, driving through clouds of dust down the long driveway to her three-room house shaded by a walnut tree. She and my mom would talk in the kitchen where the crochet-edged curtains were drawn to keep the heat out, while my brother and I coloured in picture books on the porch. My main memory is derived from a photograph of her on that same porch, stooped over in a faded blue dress with a waist-apron tied around her middle. In the end she was blind and a bit senile–putting Brillo pads in her soup–but still managing mostly on her own.
I wrote a poem about Anna years ago in which I imagined her life on that piece of land as a younger woman, trapped in the wilderness of British Columbia with many young children to raise and a husband absent half the year in search of work.
“It is no myth she pulled the plow when horses were hard
to come by, driven on by her husband, the need to feed
children coming quickly. Ten in fifteen
years, not one died. Awoke early every morning
to bake loaves of bread, cried quietly
while waiting for the dough to rise.”
This story of her pulling the plow fascinated me when I was young.
When my great-grandparents first arrived at Eagle Bay to claim their land parcel they had three children, a washboard, a coffee percolator and not much else. To gain the $11 needed for their land transfer they had sold the horses that pulled their wagon from the overdrawn California gold fields, to the already-busted Cache Creek and then onwards to Salmon Arm. All travel from that point on was by water, oars dipping into the vast darkness of Shuswap Lake, down one long arm and then another to claim their homestead of rocks. This land with its thin, dry soil would be sustenance for the years to come, and had to be worked by their bodies alone.
A quick image search reveals that “woman pulling plow” is not original to my family, nor has the practice stopped. Women, it seems, especially strong and square ones, are frequently called to step forward in lieu of livestock. Though I don’t know how she felt about it, I expect my great-grandmother, twenty-four years old and having travelled halfway around the world to get to the end of it, saw only one way forward for the survival of her children. Strapping herself into the harness as best she could, the blades churned the hard earth behind her with each step.
In a folder on my desktop, Whitehead women train pet bears, shoot rifles, stand in the snow wearing coats trimmed with beaver fur on their way to the dance at the hall. They ride horses, and learn to drive the family’s Ford Model A. My Great Aunt Frances stands in front of the log cabin and store she built on her own after becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
Over and over, I see my face, but even more than that, I see the hands. Short fingers, blunt-tipped. Hands singed against the wood-fired kitchen stove, embroidering the last supper on linen to hang in the church, pitting thirty quarts of cherries for the canner. Mine are the same shape, not girlish or fine; made for work. I imagine I must share these deep creases in my palms with my hard going foremothers who hauled boats, chopped wood, and skinned many an animal. Though I am not carving a home out of wilderness, my hands have learned these skills as well.
I think often about Anna, her arrival on a remote lakeshore more than 100 years ago, and what it took to coax a life from that ground. She was not raised in rural circumstances, she came from Hamburg and lived in American cities with street cars, electricity, and milk delivery right to the door. She didn’t come from money, but cities afforded a level of amenities far removed from the place she ended up. The skills she exercised through her life were learned from the doing of things, and from the neighbours ten miles away.
Today we live in a down-skilled world, having lost the necessity of learning; we master only the skills we need to be employed, or get by in our homes. Though it’s true that in some corners people have re-taken up the old arts of textiles and metalworking, this is not the overarching reality, and many people cannot even cook a basic meal for themselves. With massive social change underway, it is hard to imagine this level of luxury will continue. Just this week, a new report suggests we face the end of modern civilization by 2050. While I’m not sure I believe that, there is no question in my mind that if we want to halt or reverse the ecological catastrophe in which we are now living, we must bring an end to the patterns of our consumption culture.
Or in other words, go from living in cities to pulling the plow.
It’s unlikely that many will learn the skills of self-reliance until the need to do so is upon them, and it’s lucky there are people keeping those arts alive through these times. If Anna has taught me anything, it’s that one can show up on the edge of nowhere and get down to working it out, one burdened step at a time. Though her hard working days are long gone, the canned goods eaten, her needlework displayed in the church behind glass, I look at my hands and see my inheritance, a survival kit, and a way of working the world.
The Whitehead family circa 1911, not long before their arrival in Canada by wagon. Pictured are my Great Grandparents John and Anna with their first three children: my Grandfather Nicholas and Great Uncles Ernie and Hans.
July Recipe: Basil Olive Oil
Quick! Your basil could flower anytime now depending on variety, and you want to bottle up some of that fragrant goodness for wintertime. Because basil doesn't dry well (it loses too much of its scent), it is best preserved by freezing in ice cube trays or by infusing oil with it.
Pint or Quart jar
Enough basil leaves to fill jar (2 or 4 cups, packed)
1.5-3 cups of good quality olive oil
Pack leaves tightly into jars. Using a wooden spoon, break them up a bit to release the flavour. Pour in olive oil until it covers the leaves entirely. Put a lid on the jar and store in a cupboard for six weeks. At the end of that time, decant the oil, squeezing the leaves to release all liquid. You can use these leaves to make a basil/spinach pesto. Store the remaining oil in an airtight jar and use for cooking, salads, and a reminder of summer throughout the winter months.
In the studio
I've been away for most of July so there is no new work in the studio this month. Instead I present a stack of fabric which will become clothing in the next few weeks. We have our big summer party next weekend and then life should settle back down as I wind out the rest of the season on the island with ocean swims and textile projects.
Note to self: I am only thirteen subscribers away from my Tea Towel draw, so I better get to work on warping the loom as well!
Emergence Magazine. This quarterly multimedia publication is everything I want to write about and don't know how. With a focus on ecology, culture, and spirituality, the editors tell us "It has always been a radical act to share stories during dark times. They are a regenerative space of creation and renewal." Just finding these writers and artists, activists and scientists sharing their stories fills me with a kind of joy. Even during difficult days, these voices exist in the world and I can hear them.
Lost Words. This book seems to be everywhere at the moment, and yet I only recently noticed it. A picture book, a poetry collection, a statement about naming, place, and the way our shifting language masks the loss of our relationship to the living world. Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a remarkable work based on words removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in 2007 to be replaced by other, "more relevant" words. Fern, heron, kingfisher, wren -- what are we without these words? These beings?
Codex Canadensis. One of my Gabriola neighbours is Heather Cameron. I am thinking about her now because we have a chance to hang her latest work in our home for a few weeks, an incredible honour and responsibility. She works embroidery over a large scale, with hundreds (or maybe thousands) of hours going into each piece. I've linked here to her Codex project, which is based on the Codex Canadensis, the first natural history of Canada penned in the 1700s. Because it was devised from descriptions of animals, rather than life, the figures are fantastical, dream-like, monstrous and inventive. Heather's pieces make a statement about our fear, awe, and understanding of the natural world and how that has shifted over time. They are also simply phenomenal to look at.
Last issue you people were really kind and spread the word about my monthly mailing far and wide. I have so much appreciation for that and am really close to 150 subscribers now. When I hit that mark I'll be doing the tea towel draw, so keep sharing! After 150, I'll do another draw at 300 and so on - so this isn't the only chance to win something from the textile studio.
Also, I've been working on writing residency applications this month, which has been a bit intense. I want to say thank-you to Jill Margo and Andrew Templeton, friends and writers I look up to a lot, for their help with the proposal process.
As always you can find more of me at http://red-cedar.ca and on instagram @comfortfortheapocalypse. See you next month!