Acts of Salvage

The Longest Way

On the wall of my senior high school Calculus classroom was a poster of a girl sitting on a curb with her belongings and a cat. The accompanying text read, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” I took Calculus in my final term of high school — why I am not sure, as around that time I was accepted into the undergraduate program in Geography at Queen’s, for which Calculus was not a requirement (although it did come in handy in a geomorphology course precisely once) — and, rather than focus on derivatives and asymptotes, spent much of the term looking up at that poster, which might as well have been a picture of me.

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way” is the refrain of a once-popular World War I song composed by songwriter George Fairman (1881-1962). A very similar phrase had appeared earlier in Incidentals, a 1900/1904 volume of essays and aphorisms published by American writer Carl Sandburg (in Sandburg’s book, the line actually reads “I’m an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on the way.” Interestingly, in 1999 or so Dionne Warwick recorded a song with Burt Bacharach (lyrics reportedly written by Hal David) called “On My Way,” which opens with “I don’t know where I’m going / But I’m on my way.” The repeated use of this phrase — including its attribution, variously, to Carl Sandburg and (probably erroneously but who knows?) to Carl Sagan, and its appearance on the poster hanging on the wall of my high school Calculus classroom — suggests it has enduring resonance (or alternatively, perhaps, that songwriters are as prone to borrowing as regular litigation over rights suggests they may be).

The poster and the phrase printed on it resonated strongly with me, and for years afterward I thought about it often. About fifteen years ago I began searching peripatetically online for the poster or even an image of it, without luck until a couple of years ago when I came across it listed in the holdings of the Oakland Museum of California. I now have a copy of the poster framed on my office wall, a constant companion and friend.

I was born on a Thursday, and always felt the old sing-song line “Thursday’s child has far to go” described me utterly.

I have always been preoccupied with location and spatiality. Always. My earliest memories are directly spatialized, and, well, I was always going to be a geographer, always was a geographer, long before I ever learned the word, or knew a geographer was a thing one could ‘be’ or geography a thing one could ‘do.’

For me geography has never been primarily about maps, or globes, or the memorized names of rivers or Gross Domestic Product of various countries. It seems to me that colouring in maps (the longstanding ritual of elementary school geography classes) is one of the least interesting ways to learn about place and space — although having kids create maps, including maps of the imagination, is a highly valuable and worthwhile activity. Place is an idea and an experience long before it is an encoded set of categories. The capacity to orient — in space, across time, toward the self and others, toward ideas, around representations and meanings of place — is in some ways ingrained but needs also to be cultivated, learned, developed, expanded, explored.

The pandemic has constrained spatial movement in many ways: travel is largely curtailed and many regions have undergone weeks- or months-long shutdowns geared toward limiting the spread of the Covid-19 virus and its variants. But it has also created compensating opportunities for people to practice more local forms of exploration. Biking, for example, has become so popular in many cities (including Toronto) that bike shops are sold out of stock and parts are back-ordered for months. Walking has also surged in popularity, and sidewalks, parks and hiking trails are busy with forest bathers, joggers making up for lost time at the gym, families out for strolls, and psychogeographers letting the landscape take them where it will.

When I was young we lived adjacent to a wide, deep southern Ontario ravine with an old meandering creek flowing along the bottom of it. In my teens I walked down into the ravine at least once or twice a week and then eventually almost daily, regardless of the weather, or season, or time of day. I did so in part because it was the only place I could be alone with my thoughts, and also because something in the ravine — particularly when the wind was high or the cold very still or when the spring peepers were trilling their secretive songs — pulled me down into it. Over the course of several years I came to know a mile-long stretch of it intimately: every bend of the creek and slope of the ravine, the shape of its oxbows, the ebb and flow of its gravel bars, the flotsam that accumulated in logjams, the habits of fish and heron, the way the trees swayed in windstorms, the smell of cedar thickets, the pressure of ice against the edges of the swamps. Over the decades I have returned to Duffins Creek semi-regularly, first with my father and then with my daughter and sometimes alone, and while the creek bed has shifted, trees have fallen and regrown, and although development and a paved recreational trail have altered the watershed and floodplain in some places, leaving other parts of the ravine to grow wilder than ever, I can still navigate the ravine nearly with my eyes closed.

In an era characterized by global movement (and often displacement), it is a privilege to be able to remain in a place long enough to get to know it intimately. People who live in a community but never walk its streets or visit its parks do not really come to inhabit a place, regardless how long they live there. In some ways my childhood and adolescence were very constrained, but access to Duffins Creek (the grammarian in me will always call it ‘Duffin’ or ‘Duffin’s’ Creek) was my passport not only to multisensory, fully embodied experiences of a particular place, but also to insights into the way landscapes function more generally. In high school I was fortunate to take a physical geography course with a superb teacher who took our class down to Duffin creek to measure its processes and flows. At the time it seemed a revelation to realize I already knew so many things about how the creek worked, and that our quantitative and qualitative observations (velocity across the profile of the stream bed, turbidity, what we would find in suspension in the water column, etc.) would line up so utterly with my embodied experiences of the creek. It is not an exaggeration to say that this field trip was life-changing for me. Perhaps above all it affirmed my sense that experiences matter, including embodied and even inchoate ones, and underscored my emerging views about the importance of paying attention to the connections between things that can be measured and the things that can only be sensed or felt. In short, this trip turned me into a confirmed phenomenologist. [It should also have turned me into a geomorphologist, but sadly did not, although as an undergraduate student I think I took every geomorphology course offered, and have taught physical geography courses on and off for years.]

After spending graduate school largely in transit between cities, houses and apartments, I was fortunate to move into the community where I still live, eighteen years later (and where my husband has lived for more than thirty years following a childhood of continental displacements). In the early years of our marriage, when our house still needed furnishing and when people still put amazing sorts of architectural salvage and other interesting things out to the curb, we would head out every garbage night, usually on foot or bike, to see what the neighbourhood had on offer. On these excursions we rarely went far, but found many things worth bringing home: beautiful old (and sometimes contemporary) furniture, elaborate old windows, sometimes with leaded panes or stained glass, thick wood planks of the sort now described as ‘barn board,’ a lovely 1920s bed frame that eventually became the centrepiece of our guest bedroom, a huge box filled with crystal goblets, a large, brand new Portmeirion Botanic Garden serving dish I still use for special occasions, a garden bench, planters, plant stands, tools, books. In a dumpster parked in front of a house being gutted to the studs I once found an old washboard and kitchen scale. We even co-wrote an essay about our garbage gleanings published in GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto (Coach House Books, 2007) and excerpted in a now-defunct local weekly.

The most important thing about our garbage excursions wasn’t the things we found, however. It was the opportunity to encounter our neighbourhood in all its moods, at all hours and in all seasons, and to move freely through all of them. Late one summer night we rode out, the moon floating high in the trees, a wind soughing in their branches, warm air on our skin, and in that instant I felt more alive than I have ever felt.

Early yesterday morning I went out walking with my like-minded neighbour, an artist who walks out nearly every morning but always makes sure to head out on garbage day. It was my first intentional garbage walk in years. We left just before sunup, while the waning Worm Moon still floated in the southern sky. We covered about four kilometres of terrain, although as the crow flies we were never more than about a kilometre from home. When we set off we did not have a specific plan, although we thought we might keep an eye out for architectural salvage and other bits and bobs worth hauling home. In the end we did not bring anything back other than a couple of books from free libraries (including, for me, a first edition of Matt Cohen’s Night Flights (Doubleday, 1978)), but we traversed every block in our immediate neighbourhood, considering objects set out at curbside, talking about our favourite houses (usually the ones with some mystery to them), and discussing what we know of their pasts, and exclaiming over the ‘coming soon’ sign posted in front of a long-abandoned house three blocks away, and considering whether chairs, planters and other objects were worth hauling home. The streets were quiet, so we jaywalked at whim, gawking at everything we wanted to see, and enjoyed our freedom of movement in a city largely shut down by the pandemic.

Last week, on my birthday, after many years as a cyclist and pedestrian, I obtained my G1 driver’s license, the first step toward becoming a licensed driver in Ontario. I actually know how to drive and am not bad at it, but have never completed all the steps to becoming fully licensed. We are planning quite a bit of travel after the pandemic is over, within Canada, to Israel, Europe (for me and our daughter) and possibly (for my husband) India, and this seems like a good time to obtain a license. In my experience driving attenuates the visceral experience of both movement and place, but it seems to me there will be compensations. Even with greater mobility, most of my trip plans are likely to remain local. There are quite a few country roads I’d like to drive, for example, and little towns I’d like to visit or revisit. There are rivers and lakes we plan to kayak and camp beside. There are a couple of abandoned farms I’d like to visit, to poke around in their overgrown apple orchards, and then, on the way home, stop in at every roadside antique shop along the way.

But I’ll still be happy to walk out late at night or early in the morning to scope out the neighbourhood for interesting things to salvage.

Not Quite Still Life

Working with words means one spends quite a lot of time turning them over and moving them around, fitting and refitting them together like stones in a wall. Thinking is a cerebral, iterative process that lends itself, oddly enough, to physical motion. Years ago in grad school, I used to write for an hour early in the morning before showering, and tease out ideas while shampooing my hair. While biking downtown to teach, I map out lectures between traffic lights, sometimes becoming so preoccupied that I’ll forget to turn down Yonge toward campus. I’ve done a lot of writing on trains, and out in the woods, and down along the lake. If I am not moving while writing, ideally there will be other things in motion: a river eddying around rocks, trees twisting in a wind, snow falling fast and slantwise.

A pandemic is a study in stasis, and after a year spent working from home there have had to be accommodations. After months spent livestreaming lectures from my office I’ve abandoned that space, opening up my laptop in the living room, or in the sitting room on the third floor, or even at an old secretary desk in the spare bedroom. In each room I’ll work for a while before getting up to check the fridge, or look out a window, or check the mail. A neighbour comes out of her house. The recycling bins need bringing back in. Hoisted by cherry pickers, city crews are trimming street trees. A cat wants out. A cat wants in.

In the house, winter light illuminates the undersides of things, and so I get up to look. This wooden shelf, hung in a corner by the bay window, glows between snow squalls in the pewter afternoon light. There is a story to every piece here. The shelf itself I found discarded at curbside around the corner five or six years ago. It is handmade, probably a project piece made from instructions in a DIY magazine published not long after the War. The sage-coloured candlesticks, jam pot, carved wooden bird and vases are from my mother.

I bought the two leather-bound books on the middle shelf for a dollar each at an Eastern Ontario yard sale many years ago: one (published in 1829), is a life of Alexander the Great; the other (dated a decade later) a life of Peter the Great (the volume on Alexander the Great has a folio-sized fold-out map of the Middle East and Central Asia). I found the brass owl and squirrel figurine on the shelf at Value Village. The two books lying on their sides are fascinating. The first, John Ruskin‘s Ethics of the Dust: Ten lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallization, is a Socratic-voiced manual of geology, minerology … and metaphysics. Ruskin was a leading Victorian thinker who was influenced by Darwin and very much interested in education (including the education of women) and independent thought. The other volume, The Blind Farmer and his Children, is a nineteenth century ‘improving’ novel originally published in 1817 (my copy “awarded to William Meikle as a prize for regular attendance,” by teacher Agnes Morrison on 27 June 1872). Ethics of the Dust was a gift from my mother; I found The Blind Farmer and His Children among her books after she died. The green china deer came from the Leslieville Flea; the double-decker bus from an eastern Ontario flea market.

On the bottom shelf are my Mother West Wind books from childhood, some little books I like to look at (The Observer’s Book of Furniture, The Observer’s Book of Architecture, two ‘Mr. Cuthbert’s’ gardening guides from the early 1950s, and A Flower Fairy Alphabet.), and a small green pitcher I spotted on the shelf a year ago at Value Village and left there, regretting the decision as soon as we left the store. A week later it was still there, and came home with me.

I look upon these treasures, illuminated in the pewter light. The snow squall ends, the light shifts. It’s time to return to work.

New Year, More Bookshelves

We live in a big, oldish (1910-1912) Edwardian Classic home in Toronto’s Junction area. Like many homes of its era, the house was built with generous brick bays on the first and second floors, offset from the central front gable in order to accommodate an interior plan defined by a side hall and staircase opening upon wide, comfortable rooms..

Here is a picture of our house, taken in about 1917 on the occasion of what looks like a wedding.

I love this picture because it captures the generosity of the house, especially its wide, double-story verandah wide enough to hang festive bunting from and sturdy enough to accommodate an extended family for a special occasion.

Fast-forward a century or so, and here’s a picture of the house taken shortly after dawn on Christmas morning.

Obviously, a few things have changed. Long gone is the elegant fascia board at the gable, and the graceful curve of the veranda. At some point, likely in the 1950s, they were replaced with an atrocious boarded contraption meant to look modern, which clashed terribly with the rather traditional brick and bays. Nearly a decade ago we rebuilt the front porch post-and-beam style, and, a few years later, the second story balcony, restoring consistency to the front of the house although not quite resurrecting its Edwardian flair.

Inside, the house has changed quite greatly from its original configuration. Like many homes of this size, our house was divided into apartments during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Even earlier it had, we have been told, housed several generations of at least one extended family. In 1982 (I know this from a cache of receipts for building materials we found under the veranda!) a previous owner made structural changes to the interior that profoundly and in my view unnecessarily altered the flow and function of the rooms. These changes make me grit my teeth even to inventory.

Edwardian Classics were typically built with a long side hall and staircase, with the kitchen behind them, and a front room and dining room running the full length of the house, connected by an open archway or wide pocket doors. On the second floor there are typically three, sometimes four bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small room often used as a sewing room at the top of the stairs. On the third floor are ordinarily two attic bedrooms. Commonly added on to the rear of these homes, likely a few years after they were built, are two-story frame structures serving a variety of purposes–storage rooms, sleeping porches, pantries, washrooms–with the upper level typically a fully-windowed sunroom. [The old sunroom in our house is now my office.]

The biggest change made to our house during that perplexing 1982 renovation was a basement stairwell hacked through the middle of the house, right into the archway that had once linked the front parlour and dining room. This atrocity had a functional purpose: to make the then-newly finished basement legally accessible to be used as bedroom space for a ground floor apartment. But it had several deleterious effects. First, an existing external basement access at the back of the house (houses of this era often had a set of exterior stairs to the basement, possibly so coal could be delivered) was closed off and built over. Second, a perfectly serviceable existing interior basement stairwell was, completely ridiculously, closed off to the ground floor (it remains accessible from the outside via a side door that is not original to the house). Third, the house’s natural front-to-back airflow was disrupted by all this boxing up and cutting off. And finally, the new basement stairwell, while functional, created a large boxed-in void in the middle of the ground floor. Functional for apartments, but architecturally terrible.

As our family and its needs have expanded–one child, one elderly person requiring full-time care, two work-at-home offices, space for a small business and an art studio–we’ve stopped renting out space and come to occupy the entire house. But the problem of the awful basement staircase persisted … until a few days ago, when I was (after 18 years spent wondering about it) motivated to take a crowbar to a curiously sloped stretch of drywall lining the basement stairs.

Behind that stretch of drywall was … nothing! Nothing at all but space, cobwebs, a 1975 penny, and a skittering of decades-old mouse droppings.

A perfect space, it seemed to me, for shelving that might, at the very least, humanize the scale of the basement stairwell.

In the garage we have a stack of beautiful old boards, milled from huge trees a century ago, and over the Christmas holiday we built in a set of shelving the full length of the basement stairwell. Here it is upon completion (I’ve since added more art and have plans to paint when hardware stores open again).

I love how the shelving adds functionality and a sense of proportion to the basement staircase.

I should add that this was not our first bookcases-in-underused-spaces project of the year: in November, I built a set of bookcases into a space behind the knee wall under the eaves on the third floor. Here it is in all its glory.

Summer of my Terracotta Soldier

Representatives of Qin Shi Huang’s teracotta army, guarding my apple mint.

At a street sale on Saturday morning, in a silk-lined box set out on a table, was a souvenir set of four terracotta warrior figures. Without really meaning to do so, I found myself buying the figures for five dollars.

Qin Shi Huang (259 BCE to 210 BCE), the first Emperor of China, is well known for unifying disparate territories into a cohesive Chinese state, for major public infrastructure projects including the Lingqu canal and the Great Wall of China, and perhaps most widely, for the thousands of life-sized terracotta figures buried at his necropolis near Xian and rediscovered in 1974. The terracotta army, which includes 8,000 warriors, along with chariots, horses and other military figures, has become a popular tourist attraction, and many visitors buy souvenir warriors, made mainly in miniature, to pack home in their suitcases. Souvenir warrior sets are also sold internationally at museums hosting traveling exhibits. In 2010 the Royal Ontario Museum here in Toronto hosted one such exhibition, and this I suspect is the source of my terracotta warriors.

My aesthetic runs more toward Upper Canada cottage than Qin dynasty China (although of course as a geographer I am interested in Qin’s public infrastructure approach to nation-building; my daughter also has an abiding interest in Chinese history, and it is from her that I learned about Emperor Qin in the first place!), but I didn’t buy these terracotta warriors for any intellectual or aesthetic reason. I bought them because they reminded me of my mother, a life-long yard sale hound who would have snatched up these warriors either to display in her dining room or to pack away as a present. If she were still alive, I would have brought these to her as a gift, knowing she would chortle over their history, and their size and detail, before setting them out in a grouping on a windowsill or shelf.

But because I cannot give these terracotta warriors to my mother, I brought them home and set them in pots in a sheltered corner of our veranda balcony, where they keep watch among the mint. Emperor Qin might grimace at the tiny territory these warriors defend, but I think he’d smile at the setting.

*

P.S. At the same street sale I also bought this wonderful contemporary pot, salt-glazed by a local potter whose name I wish I had thought to ask. I love its texture and shape: organic, yet formal. This pot is also spending the summer on the veranda, but in the fall I think it will come indoors to join my collection of 19th century jugs and crocks.

After the Storm

Two years ago, on the day the ice went out in the lake, my beautiful mother died.

Her breath, which had raged in her throat all afternoon, grew lighter and fainter and further away, and then stopped, like the wind after a storm.

After her death I did everything that needed to be done, and bore everything that needed to be borne.

I kept all her secrets.

*

Yesterday, on the first day of spring, I took my bike out of the garage and rode down to the lake. The ice had gone out, all of it except for a few slabs heaved onto the shore by a storm. From underneath each one came a musical tinkling as hexagonal columns of ice sheared off in the sunlight.

I shared a sandwich with a pair of swans, and moiled in the gravel for beach glass. I found part of a tiny porcelain insulator, a Bakelite wheel, four fat nuggets of frosted slag glass, five pieces of blue transferware, and the cobalt rim of a very old crock or pitcher. I brought them home to value and keep, and to learn what may be learned from them.

Beach glass, Lake Ontario, 2019.

So much wreckage, softened and worn by the erosion of time. Not all of it washes ashore–the lake keeps a few secrets–but enough pieces of it make landfall for parts of the story to be pieced together. Beloved crockery, broken and discarded, returns to haunt or heal.

After a storm is the best time to find beach glass. During a storm waves scour the lakebed and churn up the shore, obliterating and then reshaping it. Afterward, the rough outline of points and bays remains the same, but on the beach itself, everything has changed.

A beachcomber will, with diligence, uncover the familiar landmarks and, by observing the pattern of the waves and the spill of sediments along the shoreline, identify where artifacts are most likely to wash up.

And this is what I did yesterday; what I’ve been doing for two years. I waited out the storm and watched the shore and gathered what could be retrieved.