For years I read and re-read The Backwoods of Canada, it was always a must on my winter reading list. First published in 1836, my 1980 edition is a facsimile.
It was many years before I read Sisters in the Wilderness. I did not know that the author of The Backwoods of Canada, Catherine Parr Trail was Suzanna Moodie’s sister, or anything else about their lives together as sisters (of 5 impoverished siblings, they were always very close).
“It is fortunate for me that my love of natural history enables me to draw amusement from objects that are deemed by many unworthy of attention…the simplest weed that grows in my path, or the fly that flutters about me, are subjects for reflection, admiration, and delight.” ( The Backwoods of Canada pg.17)
There are many sketches in the book but I have no way of identifying which or even if all might have started out by Catherine’s hand. *
“I amuse myself with making little sketches of the fort and the surrounding scenery.” ( Backwoods …21)
Nor did I realize Catherine was not only a keen observer of nature but an artist.
She had published the first botanical books in our country’s history, Canadian Wild Flowers 1868 and Studies of Plant Life in Canada 1885 both illustrated by her niece Agnes.
She was a keen observer of nature and vividly describes the life of new settlers with humour and compassion.
But these are not the reasons I have read it every winter for so long.
It was for passages such as this: “The first of March was the coldest day and night I ever experienced in my life; the mercury was down to 25 degrees in the house…The sensation of cold early in the morning was very painful…Our breathes were congealed in hoar-frost on the sheets and blankets…This excessive degree of cold only lasted three days, and then a gradual amelioration of temperature was felt”. (Backwoods…151-52)
So, I am reassured on three levels, first her life was so much harder than mine that I am reminded to be grateful for every comfort, second, our road closures and loss of hydro and heat are temporary inconveniences, we have a nice wood fire burning night and day through these times which generates enough heat to melt snow to flush our toilet and there is usually enough water in the pipes to make coffee as well, as long as we remember not to flush the toilet. And lastly that there is an end to cold, spring will come.
*In the 1800’s sketches would be turned into copper engravings in order to be printed, so the sketches would be re-interrupted by another artist.
The only artist I know who engraved directly on copper plate was Whistler, and imagine, the image needs to be drawn in reverse in order to print right way around – mirror image.
“In this difficult medium (etching) Whistler proved a master of omission, so refining his skill that what was left out became as important as what was left in. He knew how to make a few lines convey the essential…As a rule he made no preliminary pencil sketches, but worked directly with his etching needle on wax-covered copper…It is remarkable how much they express with minimal means…as a Zen priest once put it, to imply the whole hen by its tracks alone.”
The World of Whistler 1834-1903 by Tom Prideaux and the Editors of Time-Life Books 1970 pgs. 12,24,143