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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ontario Gothic

There's a small rural cemetery near the town of Madoc, Ontario where I frequently walk. Named after the O'Hara family which settled the area in the 19th century, it is a moody and atmospheric place at the best of times, but never more so than in the waning days of autumn when the trees are mostly bare and the weather is threatening.





















Part of the cemetery is still actively used, and loved ones still tend the graves and leave flowers.

















The older part of the cemetery, however, is unkempt and unloved and has an abandoned look. The grave stones tilt precariously or have fallen over and are covered in decades of lichen growth.






















At the very back of the graveyard, surrounded by a decrepit cast-iron fence, is a fascinating tombstone. It reads:

ERECTED
BY JOHN DICKIE
OF CHERRYVALE
IN ABERDEENSHIRE
TO COMMEMORATE THE
TRAGICAL DEATH
OF HIS SON
ROBERT DONALD DICKIE
BORN 28TH JULY 1825
AND WAS ROBBED AND
MURDERED
IN HIS OWN HOUSE
10TH JAN 1859
BY SAMUEL PETER BLOCK
ONE OF HIS OWN SERVANTS
WHO WAS TRIED AND CONVICTED
OF THE ROBBERY
AND MURDER
AND EXECUTED 18TH JUNE 1859






















Standing at Robert Donald Dickie's grave I can imagine the whole story - Samuel Block creeping through the house on a stormy January night intent on robbing his employer, perhaps being caught in the act by the surprised owner of the house who was murdered where he stood, candlestick in hand. I imagine the body being later discovered by the victim's father, the subsequent trial of Block with the elder Dickie glowering in the courtroom intent on revenge, the hanging of the convicted killer and the final act of the grieving father memorializing the crime on his son's tombstone forever.

The cemetery always makes me think of how hard life must have been for the first settlers of this area, who left their homes in Cherryvale or other little villages in the Old World, coming to the howling wilderness of Upper Canada looking for a better life. Even today it's a hardscrabble existence for farmers in the northern part of Hastings County trying to eke out a living on the marginal farmland. The area was described by Al Purdy in his famous poem The Country North of Belleville:

Bush land scrub land
        — Cashel Township and Wollaston
Elvezir McClure and Dungannon
green lands of Weslemkoon Lake
where a man might have some
          opinion of what beauty
is and none deny him
          for miles —

Yet this is the country of defeat
where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picnicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries' rubble
          backbreaking days
          in the sun and rain
when realization seeps slow in the mind
without grandeur or self deception in
         noble struggle
of being a fool —

A country of quiescence and still distance
a lean land
         not like the fat south
with inches of black soil on
         earth's round belly —
And where the farms are
          it's as if a man stuck
both thumbs in the stony earth and pulled

          it apart
          to make room
enough between the trees
for a wife
         and maybe some cows and
          room for some
of the more easily kept illusions —
And where the farms have gone back
to forest
         are only soft outlines
         shadowy differences —
Old fences drift vaguely among the trees
         a pile of moss-covered stones
gathered for some ghost purpose
has lost meaning under the meaningless sky
         — they are like cities under water
and the undulating green waves of time
         are laid on them —

This is the country of our defeat
         and yet
during the fall plowing a man
might stop and stand in a brown valley of the furrows
         and shade his eyes to watch for the same
         red patch mixed with gold
         that appears on the same
         spot in the hills
         year after year
         and grow old
plowing and plowing a ten acre field until
the convolutions run parallel with his own brain —

And this is a country where the young
        leave quickly
unwilling to know what their fathers know
or think the words their mothers do not say —

Herschel Monteagle and Faraday
lakeland rockland and hill country
a little adjacent to where the world is
a little north of where the cities are and
sometime we may go back there
        to the country of our defeat
Wollaston Elvezir and Dungannon
and Weslemkoon lake land
where the high townships of Cashel
       McClure and Marmora once were —
But it's been a long time since
and we must enquire the way
        of strangers —

1 comment:

robins111 said...

Wonderful country that area, I was born and raised there. I was fire chief in one of those municipalities mentioned in the poem. The only thing wrong with it is, there's no work and I had to leave. For interest sake, travel through a bunch of these old cemeteries and try to calculate how many locals died during one event.. My favorite is the Spanish Flue epidemic..