I read a biography of Robert Burns this summer that focused on his creativity and how it was linked to love, or more accurately, to sex. If you think that Thomas Aquinas has his hands full Christianizing Plato, you should have seen what the Victorians went through trying to make Robert Burns respectable!
Burns was deeply respected women and saw them as equals. He did not deify them but truly enjoyed their companionship throughout his life. And, he had a voracious sexual appetite, numerous illegitimate children and was usually chasing at least one goddess (or two). The point of the book is that the creative and sexual aspects of the poet’s life were linked, with spikes in inspiration whilst he was in love.
One attempt the Victorians made to rehabilitate Burns’ reputation was to focus on a woman immortalized as “Highland Mary”, who died when she was very young. These paintings portray a very chaste parting and imply that had Mary lived, Burns’ life would have been more respectable. However, the evidence is not encouraging, with contemporary sources recounting that the young lady was quite free with her favours and a rather interesting persistent story that she died giving birth to Burns’ child. What I appreciate about Burns is his frankness and far sighted commitment to liberty. His plain speaking occasionally alienated people (he rather tactlessly celebrated the deaths of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI to a member of the Scottish nobility). I raised myself on Burns and I suppose I’ve got him to thank for the fact that I’ve always been a Jacobite at heart. His personal life was kind of a hot mess … but I prefer it to the way Victorians creepily repressed things and tried to wallpaper over people’s reputations and whole sections of life, and history!
Here is an example of how history can be personal, and provide connection and guidance.
I’ve always been resistant to cooking. I swear if someone created an elemental chart of my make up it would be some fire, oceans of water (emotions) and most of all air — air — air — thinking, thinking all the time. It’s my tendency to live in my brain with books and art and ideas and the past and the future and everything, everything but the present moment. What’s utterly missing from those elements? Earth. My body. I can’t really relate when people talk about the pleasure they get out of preparing a good meal and sharing it with someone else. I know this is partly down to my trauma as well.
Of course, whenever I get a spare moment, I like to learn. The best meal I ever had in my life was that morning in Paris when I walked into that museum and saw the Botticellis hanging on the wall. I thought to myself, sometimes as a human being you get to walk into a palace and have breakfast with Botticelli. I’m still full, reeling, euphoric, from that breakfast. It was magic food.
But I’m an earth being, aren’t I? I need real food as well. I think of the patched together meals that I make for myself and of the time one memorable (for the wrong reasons) long weekend when I got a huge stack of toothsome books from the library. I made pot after pot of tea whilst I devoured those books. I was away in my own world, so happy, the things of this world utterly forsaken. This began on a Thursday night. It was only on Saturday afternoon when a humble little voice … namely, my body … remarked tentatively, “I think I’m hungry.”
My brain had been so nourished and fed by the art, literature, history and biographies that I had been consuming that I had been nibbling on things in an offhand way and hadn’t had a proper meal in days. I was really cross with myself for behaving like a child who has been left unsupervised (neglected, more properly) and has to be told to stop playing and eat. Not good enough for a proper grown up woman.
My make up — fire and water and air — is good. But missing from my gifts and abilities was the capacity to recognize the importance of something as earthy and grounding as taking the time to cook for myself. I suddenly thought, is that because I haven’t felt safe for all these years? Would that be a nice thing to do? I want to pay more attention to my body when she says she’s hungry or cold.
A few weeks ago, I visited my great-great grandmother’s grave. I suddenly remembered that my great-great grandmother lost her husband as quite a young woman. She had three wee children. What you had to do in those days was go round and stay with your relations for a few months at a time, always moving on. My great-grandmother, her daughter, didn’t have a home of her own until she married my great-grandfather when she was twenty five years old. She didn’t learn to cook until then and it sounds like she never cared about it either.
But, my cousin recalled, my great-granny did bake really good bread. Bread is the one food that I do respond to. I know a lot of people say that the smell of meat cooking is the most primal thing and it is wonderful. But for me the smell that makes me want to rip through walls is fresh bread. I thought to myself, I think I’d like to bake bread.
So I tried that this summer, and perhaps it’s genetic! I can make bread! I’ll never buy it again! It costs pennies to make, pennies! And it sounds so impressive when you tell people you make bread. I no longer have the shame and stigma of not being able to cook!
This is the recipe I use. It slices nicely, makes delicious sandwiches, and when it goes stale it allegedly makes great French toast. I cannot confirm this as it never lasts longer than a day or two in my house. I like to serve it on my great-grandmother’s one hundred year old bread board, with soft butter. If you listen to beautiful music whilst kneading it, anecdotal evidence shows that it tastes even better.
Basic White Bread
1 t. dry active yeast
Pinch of sugar
1/2 t. salt
1 T. plus 2 t. vegetable oil, divided
1 c. warm water
2 1/2 c. all purpose flour
Combine the yeast, sugar, salt, 1 tablespoon of oil and warm water in a medium sized bowl. Allow the yeast to activate … it will become foamy, which takes about ten minutes.
Stir in one cup of flour, then add the rest of the flour half a cup at a time. You do not want dry dough, so I add just enough flour to keep it from being sticky.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for eight minutes. Fold in half, quarter turn, repeat. Some people say you should have a bread machine for this part but they’re expensive and I don’t have any room on my counters or shelves for more gadgets. And, I like kneading bread. It’s really quite relaxing and reflective, and why do we want to hurry up so much anyway? Also, I’m meant to do a workout for my arms so I can skip it on the day I make bread, I reckon. My arms look like cooked spaghetti no matter what I do anyway so who cares.
Oil the inside of the bowl with one teaspoon of oil and put the ball of dough into the bowl, turning once to coat with oil. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and put it in an unheated oven to rise for one hour.
This will be one of the proudest moments of your life — remove the dough from the oven — it has risen! you think to yourself! And joyously punch it down, folding a few times.
Lightly oil the inside of a loaf pan with the remaining oil. Shape the dough into a pretty oblong loaf, then return it to the unheated oven and allow to rise for another half hour.
Remove the pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the loaf in the heated oven and bake for thirty minutes until golden brown on top. You can paint it with a little honey thinned with water and sprinkle some rolled oats on the top to make it beautiful.
Another proudest moment: remove your bread from the loaf pan. It should sound hollow when you tap on the bottom.
Choose your own adventure. Civilized version: allow the bread to cool on a rack whilst you make a pot of tea. Spread slices of the bread with butter and honey and eat a slice or two whilst sipping your tea. Even millionaires can’t get anything nicer than that, darling. Primal version: rip into that loaf of bread and eat it by the handful.
When people call or text you casually mention that you’ve baked bread. They will be impressed. Play it extremely cool but feel like a bad ass.
FYI: If you live with others and leave that bread unguarded, prepare to return to a crime scene…… a knife, some crumbs, and vague and uncooperative witnesses (the usual suspects).
I got to look at my mom’s family tree this weekend. Jacob Grass got on a ship sailing from Hanover in 1752 called The Nancy (my mom’s name). He came to what would become the United States to begin with but of course it was 1752 and the United States did not exist yet.
I am also descended from a Cameron and a MacGregor. No wonder I’ve always been a Jacobite! But! Also, a Hanoverian! No wonder I’m so mixed up.
And so there are roots and bones stretching back through time, to people I don’t know and am only beginning to learn about. I am Jacob Grass, I have his genetics. Perhaps I look like him or at least recall an expression he had in some forgotten way and it’s all jumbled together with everyone else to create something uniquely mine, uniquely me.
Jacob Grass took a risk. He got on a ship to an unknown land and he tried something. Why did he do this? Was he leaving something? Or going towards something else?
I wonder if he liked tea. And cats.
Why history? If it is a bewildering clutter of dates and names, no wonder people lose interest. Stories have power and influence, so this is better. But still, why? Why should anyone care about what happened in the past, and what influence does it have on our daily lives?
October is the right time to explore themes like this, to ask questions of the ghosts that haunt us, and reflect on how we can perhaps be connected to and guided by them instead.
Sometimes, the impact of history is big and broad … like a war that killed two percent of the British population or twenty million missing bison.
And sometimes, it can be small and relevant to how we can live life today, just now.
I’ll tell you about a little practice that I have. I say good morning to my grandmas every day. When I make my tea, I use tea cups that were given by my great granny to her daughter-in-law, my grandma. My other great-grandmother gave my grandma (her daughter) a tea caddy as a birthday present. I don’t have anything that belongs to my mom’s mother, but I say good morning to that stylish, courageous French girl with the beautiful structured jawline every morning too. I do have something of hers! That determined, rather elegant jaw. Merci, madame.
I imagine getting a hug from each grandma. It makes me feel rooted and connected as I start my day. And sometimes to be honest the rest of the day isn’t very good. But I can start off feeling loved and supported. I think this is a small example of how history can help us to live more thoughtful, meaningful and loving lives.
If I’m descended from healers (nurses) and teachers, I’m also descended from warriors. The Gordon Highlanders Museum sent us my great-grandfather’s war record from World War One a few weeks ago. Henry Grey was awarded three medals.
1. The Military Cross
2. The British War Medal
3. The Victory Medal.
Henry witnessed and suffered terror that I cannot imagine, was wounded several times, and he also experienced the drudgery and discomfort and boredom and loneliness of that forgotten and overlooked time between battles that soldiers also experience.
I think, how hard that must have been … awful food, the dreaded endless rounds of Mulligatawny soup, wet feet, uncomfortable beds, or no beds. Loneliness.
I’ve seen my great-grandfather’s battle box. He would collect it at the end of the day and it contained his things … extra socks, letters, a book or two perhaps. Maybe someone had sent your favourite cookies or some other treat from home. Some soldiers didn’t get anything from anyone. And of course there were the leftover battle boxes at the end of the day that no one came to collect.
I had an awful dream this summer that my nephew went off to war with a battle box that his dad had lovingly made for him. At the end of the day, a wagon came round and that battle box was still in there. I started screaming, “No! No! No!”
Honestly, my brain sometimes.
My great-grandfather did meet a warrior who confounded and defied him and that was his own daughter, my great-auntie Mary, who of course wasn’t anyone’s great auntie at the time but a little girl with auburn curls and a determined chin that recalled her father growing up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in the 1930s. She refused to eat porridge for breakfast and went toe to toe with this warrior who had been wounded and decorated and survived the deadliest conflict in human history.
And she stood him right down. He told her she’d have porridge for breakfast or go hungry and this is just what the young lady did. Every day … for years. Even the most implacable soldier will inevitably meet his … or her … match.
I do eat porridge because it’s cheap and I rather like it this time of year. I made it today and giggled when I was thinking about this story.
Those are some roots and bones for today, and I hope you find it nourishing. History, said Thomas Moore, is food for the soul. And sometimes the local and homegrown history is best of all.
“The plains are large and wide. We are the children of the plains, it is our home, and the buffalo have been our food, always.”
— Chief Crowfoot negotiates the signing of Treaty 7, 142 years ago today.
Treaty 7 was the agreement the British crown signed with the people in my area (what is now southern Alberta, Canada).
Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Chiniki, Wesley, Bearspaw and Tsuu Tina and of course us pioneers/settlers made a legal agreement, promising that we would all live together, and keep the peace. The Métis were most certainly present in southern Alberta too but they were not given an opportunity to make a treaty at all and this was to have ongoing fall out that continues to this day.
Many bad times were to come for the people who signed the treaty. During the 1870s the Canadian government was dealing with a worldwide recession and they were putting pressure on their agents in western Canada to save money when it came to dealing with indigenous populations. People who lived in western Canada at the time had these prophetic things to say:
“When the government has to spend $100,000.00 to perform what $10.00 would accomplish at present, they may wake to find they have been sleeping on a volcano.”
— Dickieson, 1878.
“But as the wise men at Ottawa know more of the Indians and Indian matters than those of us who have passed a lifetime among them, it is little use saying anything under the circumstances. Master Indian is going to cost the country a trifle more than they fancy.”
— Archibald MacDonald, 1879.
Also, doesn’t this sound familiar, with people in western Canada trying to advise the federal government of a preventable but rapidly looming crises being ignored?
This is James Macleod. He was a colonel in the NWMP in the north-west Territories at the time Treaty 7 was signed (the NWMP arrived in Calgary in 1875). He once said this about building relationships with First Nations people:
“It is quite unnecessary to lavish presents upon the Indians. The great thing is to treat them kindly by providing them with the room where we ourselves sit, give them a cup of tea or coffee and a piece of bread and as much tobacco as they can smoke, speak to them about their camps, the buffalo and their horses and they go away perfectly contented.”
This seems to me to be the way to build a relationship with anyone: go for tea or coffee, ask them about things that are important to them, be a good listener and if you have something they enjoy, share it.
The contemporary perspective would be to cool it with the tobacco, though!
At the time, smoking a ceremonial pipe together had a spiritual significance that the British Crown and Canadian government did not fully understand. “Peace pipe” was the closest they could come to describing the ritual. But in fact, tobacco was a sacred plant that would ensure that only the truth was spoken by the negotiators. And whilst the indigenous chiefs smoked the pipe along with Colonel Macleod and the other western Canadians who had a vested interest in making this new agreement work, David Laird, who represented the Crown, did not.
When Prince Charles visited Blackfoot Crossing in 1977 for the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of Treaty 7 he did smoke a pipe. But when Canada got its own constitution just a few years later, the British Crown gave the Treaties over to the Canadian government as part of the deal.
“The plains Indians surrendered 50,000 square miles to the invading white men on the understanding that a better future awaited them. In the months following the signing [of Treaty 7] more than 600 Blackfoot died of starvation.”
— Garrett Wilson
At least from my perspective, there have been good times — my favourite part has been sharing cups of tea and listening to each other’s stories. I will do my best to be a good neighbour no matter what the different levels of government decide to do next!
“Great Father! Take pity on me with regard to my country, with regard to the mountains, the hills and the valleys; with regard to the prairies, the forests and the waters; with regard to the animals that inhabit them, and do not take them from myself and my children forever.”
— Crowfoot signs Treaty 7.
The Great Blackfoot Treaties by High Dempsey
Frontier Farewell by Garrett Wilson
Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James William Daschuk
The Banker and the Blackfoot by J. Edward Chamberlin
The story of Southern Alberta is inextricably linked with animals grazing … first, the mighty herds of bison, then … and now … the cattle that produce the world famous Alberta Beef that Albertans are justifiably proud of.
What many people don’t realize however is that our early pioneer/settler history also included vast flocks of sheep. This was a time when everything … carpets, clothing … were made from wool, so sheep travelled west when the settlers did. One of the earliest families in the Midnapore area, the Shaws, travelled west with the intention of setting up a woolen mill. There are photographs in the Glenbow Archives that show big flocks of sheep on the hills above Calgary where Crescent Heights are now; thanks to Alan Zakrison for supplying the image that I was too lazy to track down!
Local rancher George McElroy decided to try his hand at the sheep ranching business. He pastured his flock in the Rosebud Creek area east of Carstairs and is recorded as being the first white man to see the area. There is a butte in the area known as McElroy’s butte.
George also built a sod house and sheep shed, and employed a shepherd. The business must have prospered, because there are photographs of flocks numbering over 2,000 sheep. George spent three years in Alberta before he could afford to buy his first cow.
George gave up the sheep business after a heavy growth of speargrass wiped out his entire herd. He later wrote that he had been in Alberta for eight years and had nothing to show for it. George recalled with gratitude that it was a loan from a friend at the Southern Alberta Pioneers that gave him the help he needed to start again, this time turning to cattle ranching.
These days, we have a huge range of options when it comes to fabric and clothing but sheep are still important.
At Custom Woolen Mills in the Carstairs area, you can witness the history of wool because the woolen mill works five days a week!
The mill has been running since the 1970s but the equipment is much older than that. The newest machine on the place is from 1927!
Accidents … you typically don’t have to worry about fires at a woolen mill. Wool is a fire retardant and if it catches on fire it will extinguish itself immediately.
The Spinning Jenny was a machine that triggered the industrial revolution with machines mimicking handspinning. Unfortunately, the textile industry was … and still is … often unethical with regards to human rights and the environment. The textile industry in the 1900s relied on child labourers. Lewis Hine wrote an expose letting the public know about the unsafe and abusive environments children were working in. You can find his photo journalism online.
This carding machine has been in business since 1910! And it still works Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.
This photograph was taken in the late 1960s, when there was still a train bridge across the Elbow River right where it plugs into the Bow. Goose Island is there and I see the Foothills Hospital in the background! Do you recognize any of the other buildings?
Thank you to Alan Zakrison for sharing this photograph with me! You can follow this local historian on Twitter at @AlanZakrison … he leads “Twitter Tours” accompanied by maps, photographs and other great visuals.