Where’s Home (3) Part III of an open letter to Jan Hull
The Little Things
In 1898, Spain fought and lost a war with America over possession of Cuba. Cuba was the last of Spain’s overseas Empire and when it went, the all conquering fatherland, upon whose empire the sun never set, was reduced to its original territory in the Spanish Peninsula. That same year, the literary Generation of 1898 started a new movement, one that made Spain itself central to its imagery and thought. Theirs was not the Spain of Imperial History, with its wars and treaties, battles and conquests. Theirs was the eternal countryside of Spain, the Spain of Old Castille that was rooted to the soil, and that had remained virtually unchanged in the small towns, fishing ports, and villages, for hundreds of years. This was the Spain of Miguel de Unamuno’s Intra-historia: the history of small things.
St. David, Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales, a historical figure flourishing circa 600 CE, is famous within Wales for his many sayings. But for me, one stands out. “Byddwch lawen a chadwch eich ffyd a’ch credd, a gwnewch y petheu bychainmewn bwywd” / Be joyful and keep your faith and creed and do the little things in life. In these times of stress and strain, faced by enormous changes brought about by the pandemic, to these prophetic words I turn.
Poets, creators, artists, stoneists, craft-workers of all kinds … we are the antennae of the people. We sense the directions in which life flows and will flow and we are ahead of our times, not behind them. We are the ones who ‘do the little things’, often abandoning larger, more financially rewarding projects in favor of smaller ones that spiritually enrich both us and the people around us. And that is what I am now reading in Jan Hull’s Where’s Home? People, real, live, flesh-and-blood people, many of them artists at heart, abandoning the big city’s rush and rock and roll to enjoy the quietude of small communities which they help to build with their own hands.
Troglodytes, cavemen, people living in the past, I have heard ‘so-called saner citizens’ mutter about some of our contemporary artists. They live off hand-outs and charity and welfare, and they live in the past. Grey-suited, working in concrete boxes, these well-heeled critics are all made out of ticky-tacky, as the old song says, and they work in little boxes, and they come out all the same. Fine fr some, but you certainly cannot say that of the characters who inhabit the small towns, villages, and ports, as Where’s Home? demonstrates so clearly, with quote after quote from contented people, all resident in Nova Scotia, some CFA (Come From Away), others CBC (Come By Choice), and yet others native to the province.
Living in the past … when Hurricane Arthur struck, we went without power for twelve days. No water, no warm food, no cooking, no refrigeration, no flush toilets, no showers, no air conditioning, no television, no Wifi, no internet … In 1928, my grandfather and my father built a summer home, a bungalow, in Gower. I remember, even in the late fifties, living there during the summer with my grandparents: wood stove, rain water barrels, no running water, outhouse, no electricity, no refrigeration, oil lamps … Hurricane Arthur … and Clare and I went back to bungalow living. Several of our neighbors did not know how to cope with the ‘problems’. A couple moved into hotels or stayed with family elsewhere until the crisis was over. As for us, this was the life I was used to as a child. We went into bungalow mode and had more fun than anyone could imagine… living in the past? … or preparing for the future? … Think about it, and don’t jump too quickly to the wrong conclusion.
Above all, Jan Hull’s book, Where’s Home?, has made me think. It has made me think deeply about my own life, my own memories, my own restless, rootless existence, my own attempts to settle and resettle. More, in light of the pandemic with so many working from home, so much home schooling, and so much online back and forth, maybe we, the artists, the returnees, the WAH (Work At Homers), maybe we are not stranded, forgotten, on the back-burners of modern life. Maybe, just maybe, we are the fore-tellers, the front-runners, the pioneers of how a better, more meaningful existence may be created and kept. Thank you, Jan, and please thank all your contributors on my behalf.
Where’s Home (2) Part II of an open letter to Jan Hull
I ended yesterday’s letter with the words “There is a brighter side too, and I will get to that another day.” This is the day, and the brighter side is the sacredness of place. The Celtic Nations believe strongly in the sacredness of place. In the old religions we believed that places held spirits who dwelt in the rivers and streams, who lived in the trees and the orchards, who were a large part of the spirit of place and sacred space. You can still read some of this innate pantheism in The Chronicles of Narnia. Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French … we all have Celtic roots and, like the First Nations of Canada, we still believe in the sanctity of the land. This is an old tradition and a worthy one. Not all great ideas were born in Western Culture post the Industrial Revolution. Many pre-date our so called modern culture. Some should replace it.
I believe very strongly in the power of place. Sometimes, turning a corner one day, we know we are home. This is the feeling that comes so strongly through the second chapter of your book, Jan. Yes, the Maritimes (NB, NS, and PEI) are home for many people. It is indeed their One Small Corner. their querencia. What is a querencia, you ask? Well, it is the place that calls you, the place in which you want to live, the place in which you want to die. And yes, in this time of pandemic, death is on all our minds: those twin realities, sickness and death. Neither is easy. These times are not easy. But they become easier for those of us rooted in our time and our place and, like it or not, the human being, male, female, or other, must live in a dialog with their own time and place. This is the chrono- (time) -topos (place) of the Russian Philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin.
Life is so much easier when we are in our own beloved space. When we are out of it, away from home, down the road, that is when we suffer most, Sometimes we are still able to flourish. Oftentimes, we wither and perish, like leaves on the tree. You, in your book, Where’s Home?, have offered us a glimpse of what that one small corner, the province of Nova Scotia, means to your correspondents and the ones with whom you have held dialog. We are all of us richer for that experience. Thank you, Jan, and on all our behalves, mine particularly, please thank your contributors.
So, the holly hocks are back and this year we have some red ones to go with the lovely yellow ones that reseeded, in a different place, from last year. The red ones are very shy and are hidden away by the back steps where they are very hard to see.
The red and green go well together. More a deep, blushing pink, I guess, with very dark centre. You can see the wood of the steps just behind them. I posted this yesterday, incidentally, but the computer munched it and I had to rewrite it today. It has been a slow time for me. The Corona-19 finally got to me, not in the physical sense, but mentally. As a result I have been feeling isolated, trapped, and a little bit depressed. Alas, there are many more like me suffering in today’s world. Luckily, the flowers help. As does the sunshine.
Here are the new seeds from last year’s hollyhocks. They are similar in color, but much smaller this first season. They have also shifted location and I have been surprised at how many seedlings have sprouted and started to grow. Next year we may have a bumper crop.
And here we have a painting of the garden at night, flourishing without us, but beneath the stars. “The garden going on without us.” Given the current situation, I prefer the garden going on with us still here to watch it.