Acts of Salvage

Seeing Stones

On an old washstand in the bay window of our living room I keep a small shrine of stones we’ve found on local beaches and gravel bars. Some of the stones have faces. One of them contains a fossil that looks like a fish tail. One is a small section of lake-washed brick with the word ‘Toronto’ still visibly embossed on it. In a small bowl are weathered marbles we’ve found along Lake Ontario, and a perfectly rounded, egglike stone my mother once found in the roots of a very old oak tree. And some of the stones are stones with holes worn through them by wave action or other weathering processes. In European culture these are variously called ring stones, worry stones, eye stones, hagstones, witch stones, fairy stones, Odin stones, druids’ glass (Gloine nan Druidh), adder stones, serpents’ eggs, and Hühnergötter (“chicken gods,” which reportedly keep animals safe from injury and in mythology reference conflicts with the Slavic house spirit Kikimora). Recently I have seen them described as “seeing stones,” although the cultural etymology (attributed variously to Indigenous people, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and Mormons) seems unclear. Despite uncertainty about the mythical origins of the term (and the possibility that it is simply borrowed, like so many other things, from Tolkien, an enthusiastic mythology borrower himself), I like “seeing stones” best, because one does quite literally see through them, and because their talismanic properties evoke so many other kinds of divination.

Apart from mythological claims about their origins (e.g., that they are formed from the secretions of serpents), seeing stones are the product of a variety of geological and biological processes. Reportedly in Europe seeing stones are commonly formed in flint nodules that weather out of sedimentary strata and wash down streams or tumble about in the ocean. Flint is itself a propitious material, having been used for toolmaking (e.g., flintknapping) by Stone Age cultures dating back at least two million years (the palaeolithic use of flint and application of geological knowledge to mine it is an enormously fascinating subject). Wave action or the grinding action of smaller stones gradually wears holes into and eventually through these stones, which may then be found on cobble beaches all along the sea (for an account of flint hagstones and their history, read stonemason and writer Alex Woodcook‘s wonderful essay “In the Eye of the Hagstone” in Elementum). Recently I learned about piddocks, which are small mollusks that carve burrows into limestone, leaving behind rounded holes and sometimes networks of tunnels in the soft sedimentary rock. Other mollusks and sea worms also reportedly burrow into stone, and sometimes their shells may be seen in these tunnels, rattling around like miniature memento mori.

In Ontario, flint (more commonly called chert) beds (and occasionally outcrops) can be found in Hudson Bay-area Precambrian shield and in the Paleozoic bedrock of the Great Lakes area. But in my experience, seeing stones form in fossil-rich limestone or dolostone that has been eroded out of the sedimentary bedrock or scraped loose by glaciers and then washed down rivers and streams toward the Great Lakes. Over thousands of years the stones are tumbled smooth, and the remains of Paleozoic fossils–formed out of marine creatures pressed into the bottom of a shallow sea underlying much of contemporary North America more than 360 million years ago–dissolve out of them, leaving holes and tunnels behind.

I have been collecting seeing stones since I was ten. In 1981 my parents bought an old bungalow on land perched above a deep, wide southern Ontario ravine with a creek flowing at the bottom of it and thereafter, for all the years we lived adjacent to Duffin’s Creek, I spent hundreds or perhaps thousands of hours walking in the stream bed, pouring over the gravel bars that formed and reformed along the inside stretches of the creek’s meandering curves. My mother did the same thing, and after she died I discovered an old Kool-Aid can in which she had saved the seeing stones she had found along the creek. Every time I have returned to Duffin’s Creek in the three decades since we moved away from the area, I have knelt down and searched until I found a seeing stone for each of us. I do the same thing when my daughter and I go beach glass hunting along Lake Ontario, including yesterday, when after a long ride downtown along Lakeshore Boulevard (wondrously closed to cars for ActiveTO), we ventured onto the pebble beach at Ontario Place, kicked off our sandals, and got down to the business of looking for interesting things along the water’s edge. We did not stop until we had found a seeing stone for each of us, and a third to take home to my husband. The stones along this particular beach look as if they had been brought there for erosion control, but almost certainly they came from a southern Ontario quarry formed in glacial till deposited during the Quaternary ice age, which in southern Ontario ended around 12,000 years ago. Already long since tumbled to rounded smoothness, their fossils scoured or dissolved out of them, these stones will continue to wear along the edge of Lake Ontario, their cups and tunnels widening and deepening until almost every stone will become a seeing stone.

In my early teens I read an essay called “The Talisman,” by Canadian journalist Greg Clark, which recounts the protective properties of seeing stones. As a young boy, Clark’s grandmother advises Clark that, should he ever find a stone with a hole in it, he should loop a string through it and wear it around his neck, because “[i]t will protect you from the arrow that flieth by day […] and the pestilence that walketh in darkness.” Years later, on leave from the battles of the First World War (in which Clark becomes a decorated veteran of Vimy Ridge), Clark finds himself sitting on the stony beach at Brighton, and glances down upon the gravel and stares “straight as a needle, into the eye of the hole in a little pebble.” Clark picks it up, and walks to a bathing hut where he obtains a length of fish line, and ties the stone around his neck, where Clark wears it for the remainder of his life, and reports that “in all the long years,” no flying arrow nor crawling pestilence has found him.

For many years I, too, wore a stone with a hole in it on a leather thong around my neck. That stone now sits with a collection of other special stones on the desk in my office, where I touch it often in order to divine all the things that may be seen through the eye of a seeing stone.

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.

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.

The Return of Chartreuse

greencrayons_1_11Feb2016Years ago, as a child and young teen, I would occasionally read books in which the colour chartreuse was mentioned, almost always disparagingly. In the pre-internet age it was not something one could just Google, and it never occurred to me to look it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica or any of the large dictionaries we had at home. As a result, for years I equated ‘chartreuse’ simply with “ugly colour.” In my mind it inhabited a hidden section on the colour wheel somewhere near “puce,” whose particular hue was similarly  a mystery (it turns out that “puce” comes from French, to which it translates literally as “flea;” hence the unpleasant squashed-red-brown it denotes.

Chartreuse, I have learned, is a liqueur produced by French monks of the Carthusian Order since 1737. The liqueur–reportedly distilled from 130 herbs steeped in alcohol–takes its name from the Chartreuse mountains in the Grenoble region of southeast France. The mountains are beautiful and verdant, and seem to glow in the very green-and-yellow shades that give both Chartreuse liqueur (which comes in both green and yellow) and the colour its name.

And somehow, in the manner of all things, the colour chartreuse eventually made its way to America as an affectation, first as a jellied dish made with Chartreuse liqueur (somewhat infamously, it was reportedly served as a First Class dessert on the Titanic) and later, as a staple of the Hollywood Regency style of interior design popularized by Dorothy Draper.

By the seventies, chartreuse–still in wide use in both fashion and interior design–had become a kind of caricature of itself. In 1972 Crayola introduced a chartreuse crayon as part of its fluorescent series, enabling children to combine incompatible colours as well as any grown-up hippie might–but even then more muted shades of green (most notoriously avocado) and contrasting primary colours had begun to dominate the design world. By the eighties chartreuse was distinctly dated, and in 1990 Crayola quietly withdrew the chartreuse crayon (the new name was ‘laser lemon’).

Recollections of my late seventies-to-mid-eighties childhood are, of course, redolent with memories of avocado, and from time to time at a thrift store I still come across (and bring home) the odd brightly-hued polyester dress in chartreuse and, say, deep purple.

Not that I think of it as chartreuse, a colour whose overuse followed by denigration and cultural erasure has been so complete that the word has never been a natural part of my vocabulary.

*

This morning I dug through my daughter’s box of crayons, looking for chartreuse. I found it in a crayon labeled “green-yellow.” This is actually an utterly accurate description of chartreuse, which exists precisely at the midpoint of green and yellow.

While picking through my daughter’s crayons, I began thinking about the names Crayola chooses for its colours, and started to see them as cultural artifacts. Current colours, such as “fuzzy wuzzy brown” and “macaroni and cheese” seem to suit the current generation of children raised on daycare and cartoons about as well as “chartreuse” and “maize” might have fit kids growing up in the seventies.

Crayola has a long history of renaming its crayons, and sometimes this has been done done for obviously good reasons. At the same time, while records (of controversies, if nothing else) exist for these somewhat politicized changes, the subtle shifts in uncontroversial colour names arguably tell an equally important story. [Scholars interested in a critical assessment of Crayola colour changes, including the “flesh” controversy, might want to read Lorna Roth’s fascinating essay, “Home on the Range: Kids, Visual Culture, and Cognitive Equity” in Cultural Studies<->Critical Methodologies,; 9(2): 141-148 (2009).]

There is apparently a move afoot to abandon colour names. While I (and presumably IKEA) can see the obvious utility to such a thing, I think abandoning colour names entirely would be a terrible shame. Crayon (and paint and design) colours are meaningful cultural artifacts. They are records of our shifting preoccupations, and proclivities, and aspirations.

I wonder, a little, how future crayons will be named. I can easily imagine Chador or Raven, or Masala (in place of burnt sienna), or Polar for the pale blue shade of Arctic ocean meltwater currently called light blue.

I wonder, too, if some of the old colours might make a return. Chartreuse, for example, has made a hipster-ironic reappearance in the design world. The liqueur for which the colour is named has also come to the attention of Brooklynites tired of Absinthe and, reportedly, Jagermeister. Soon enough, Chartreuse jelly will undoubtedly appear on the menus at Waldorf Schools all across the land, and at some point Crayola will have no choice but to dredge up Chartreuse from the archives.

Perhaps at the same time it will make a little bit of room for puce.