Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Prescott, Ontario: Town of River Flowers

The Cycle of Life

Years ago, I had the pleasure of living in a small town in Eastern Ontario where every June brought out the snow shovels again. Snow in June? No. In Prescott, we shoveled shadflies. These little creatures are also known as mayflies. Because they ‘bloom’ on the surface of the water, more romantic areas in the world call them river flowers.

They live anywhere from a few hours to a few days and are found only in fresh water. They also happen to be the oldest known insect on earth, dating back 300 million years.
These little river flowers smell like fish and crunch beneath your feet, leaving slimy residue on the walkways and on your shoes when you step on them. I've heard of some people in the North Bay area actually eating them but I have not yet substantiated that claim. However, this hub is not just about shadflies.
It’s about people. It's my feeling that in order to appreciate the people fully, it's necessary to understand the environment.
The St. Lawrence River was the lifeline to the sea for everyone living in what was then known as Upper Canada. The river narrowed dangerously at a certain point and rapids made navigation impossible except by small vessels built specifically for this rough water. Cargo was unloaded and transferred for the trip upriver.
There were no native people displaced in the settling of this area. They had no interest in living in a mosquito-laden swampland where travel was possible overland only in the frozen winter. But the Europeans had pecuniary interests that superseded the essentials for life and this required people to live in the area. Men were needed to do the forwarding work and farms were needed to feed them. Land grants were given by King George and lured people from the British Isles with the promise of homesteading. Around this time, the American Revolution sent British Loyalists north. It was a strange mix of rough and ready people.
This all happened in the late 1700s.

Home and Hearth

The kitchen in the home where I lived. The Rumford fireplaces dated to 1795.
The kitchen in the home where I lived. The Rumford fireplaces dated to 1795.
Homes were made from ships balast and built by Scottish stonemasons. Many were rubble stone but the more elegant homes, if such a thing truly existed in such a harsh environment, were made from carved limestone blocks.
My home was rubblestone. It had not started its life as a house, but probably as a medical way station. The ground behind it was filled with apothecary bottles and the original layout was not typical of homes from that period. In 1836, it was purchased by a man named Robert Headlam, who had it remodelled into a residence. Some of the original work orders are on display in the local museum.
Many of these old houses have been renovated over the years but the original house is often accessible behind the modern walls. It was with this in mind that a gentle restoration began. Before moving in, I decided to do a little work on the house. I would drive my five-year-old daughter to kindergarten and spend the day cleaning and painting in the upstairs bathroom. One day, after working for several hours in a rather uncomfortable position under the pipes, I found myself feeling a little exasperated with the interruption from an otherwise patient little girl. I put down the tools and turned to answer her but there was no one there. Of course not. My child was in school.
For the next few days, I was greeted every morning by a feeling of welcome and the lights upstairs turned on for me. Oh, I did the usual checking and double checking to make sure they were off before leaving for the day but it made no difference. I put it down to old wiring and made a note to have it checked.
I loved the house and it seemed to reach out to me, too. I came away with a feeling that I knew the child who stayed with me while I worked and that her name was Mary. I neither saw nor heard anything. It was just a feeling. I mentioned it to my husband and he agreed with the good feeling the house conveyed but wasn’t ready to accept the existence of anyone named Mary. It wasn’t until much later when we were removing a wall in the old kitchen area and revealed the painted plaster that we saw it. There was a pencil signature in the faded indigo paint. Marywas inscribed at about the height of a six-year-old. Note: I have a photo of it somewhere and when I find it, I’ll add it here.
Mary was Robert Headlam's daughter and he probably allowed her to write her name on the wall before it was covered in the renovation. She was six at the time her father purchased the house. She didn't die a tragic young death. She grew to be a very old lady and lived a full life and for a brief time, we were allowed a glimpse into her world. Perhaps it was the restoration that opened the door or we won the lottery in the odds of coincidental circumstances. Both possibilities are impressive.

Mary's House

Built in what is called the Vernacular style, it means it is a product of its immediate environment and does not adhere to any architectural style of the time.
Built in what is called the Vernacular style, it means it is a product of its immediate environment and does not adhere to any architectural style of the time.
It was around this time that I began to think of people in terms of river flowers. Life was often short but always intense. They lived, loved, worked and died right here on this insect-infested bank of the St. Lawrence River. I found glimpses of them in the museums and in the architecture. Then, one hot summer day on a quiet drive north of the town, I found them. The experience was unforgettable.

On Carpenter's Road

High above the curve on Carpenter's Road,
insects hum in the summer heat. The gate
groans against its rusty hinges - the load
born well for centuries is now too great
for silent movement. Here the children lie
safe from wracking cough, safe within the deep
cool earth. No fever now, nor rasping cry
but under heaven's tender care, they sleep.
Nearby are mothers and beloved wives
who died in the passage of giving birth,
young men, not twenty, who gave up their lives
to greater glories than farming. The earth
holds them all. Sons and daughters of County
Armaugh, how came you from your ancient land?
Did you know the truth or was the bounty
of the Canadas so much in demand
that truth was scarce considered when you came?
A stone lies broken, flat upon the ground
and lichen grows across the long lost name -
a memorial faded, a life found.
Beneath the grass are silk and calico,
bibles, wedding rings, a favorite toy
made from scraps of muslin and indigo,
icons of sorrow and icons of joy.
Where the grass sweeps down to the shaded wood
lie two together, apart from the rest.
Did they pick violets and vow that should
they die here in this land, it would be best
to lie beneath dappled summer sunshine
forever, underneath the towering pine?
The warm wind plays softly upon the hill,
the scent of lilacs in the air. Instead
of walking in the sun, they wait - so still,
until God shall judge the quick and the dead.

Excepting photos mentioned below, all content is Copyright © Alexandra Lucas 2010. Please do not use without permission.
Top photo: Flickr/Andres Musta
Shadfly close up: Flickr/Keven Law

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