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How I Came (Late) to Write and Paint

by Gary Saunders, about 3 years ago

It began in childhood, my love affair with trees. And it was natural that one day I would write about them, about the forest tenants they sheltered and about the ways they housed and warmed and nurtured and employed us outport people too. Wild trees framed my little world in northeast Newfoundland. Not many kinds, barely a dozen, mostly evergreens, the usual sub-boreal treescape which our elders, travelling there summer and winter for food, timber, fuel, and fur, called The Country. You could travel for days back then in almost any direction and not run out of them.

Being as yet village-bound, I contented myself with village trees. Of these the first was a large, unclimbable poplar across the road from our house. Unclimbable, because it was really five large trees in one thar formed a vast fountain of foliage in summer, a dark armature of branches in winter. Children exaggerate sizes—but this monster overshadowed Aunt Kathleen's and Uncle Harold's two-story house. Balm O' Gilead, they called it. I liked that name. It sounded like something Grandma Saunders would say: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” It certainly had balm for me. Lolling under that tree's talkative canopy of shiny heart-shaped leaves with my cousins on a sultry August afternoon was sweet, sweet indeed.

The tree smelled nice too, especially after rain. I still link its fragrance to the brown, sticky stuff Mom daubed on our cuts. Called Friar’s Balsam—it s still available in some drug stores—the tincture is indeed extracted from the gummy buds of balsam poplar. This fragrance drew not only us kids, but bees and wasps by day and moths by night. Which in turn drew little brown bats that hawked after them among the twilit branches.

One evening, yearning to see a bat up close, I flailed the air with a long stick until I felt a tiny thud. Couldn't see where the stunned bat fell--but my cousins' white cat did. She pounced, I pounced. Snatching the bat alive and buzzing from her jaws, I raced home to study it under our bright Aladdin lamp. There, stroking its velvet fur, carefully spreading its leathery wings, inspecting its outsized, intricate ears and fierce foxy face, I yearned to keep it. But my mother shrieked and made me let it go. (It did have lice.)

My next tree hero was a leaning sentinel pine near the school playground. Though climbable, it guarded a tiny pioneer cemetery of the Bursey family so we daren't. But sometimes during recess I'd steal over there to hear the wind soughing through its sombre boughs like distant surf.

After that, three other kinds of local trees intrigued me: black spruce, paper birch and balsam var (fir).

Black spruce I'd known since around age six, when my father, returning from The Country, brought me a small cloth bag of flinty purplish-brown knobs--dried spruce resin. “Frankgum”, he called it, after Biblical frankincense I suppose. Warmed in the mouth, it turns soft and pink like store-bought gum, leaving teeth and gums squeaky clean. Since I'd never seen a toothbrush and was by then a candy addict plagued with frequent toothache, that may have been his motive. If so, it worked. And when the bag was empty, I made him show me a real black spruce tree so I could harvest the gum myself. It has been my favourite conifer ever since. Years later, as a trained landscape painter, I would portray it many times. (My latest book. My Life with Trees, has some on the cover.)

Birch I already knew from woodbox duty. But where these big split junks came from I had no idea. My question was answered one sparkling March morning when he took me by horse-and-sleigh deep (it seemed to me) into the wilderness to start cutting our next winter's firewood. For this expedition we borrowed Grandpa Saunders's horse King, a small Newfoundland roan. He was waiting at the gate, harnessed to twin home-made bobsleds cross-chained one behind the other, eager to go, “chomping at the bit”. As soon as my dad had stowed axe, bucksaw and grub-box, plus a small sack of oats and a bag of hay for the King, I climbed up beside him on the front bunk.

With a cluck of his tongue we were off. King, happy to be outside with nothing heavy to haul, fairly flew up the road, clods of ice flying from his shod hooves, his steamy breath flying. Past Aunt Kathleen's we went,, past the Post Office where Mom was part-time postmistress, past my best friend Everett’s house and finally onto the old Portage Road where generations of Gander Bay men had hauled home sawlogs and firewood since the early1800s.

An hour or so later we reached Clarkes Pond and started across. At first I watched the wind herd flocks of loose snow across the ribbed grey ice. Then, on the far shore, I saw where our firewood came from. On the far ridge was a world of birches, thousands of white-barked trees with brown tops fading to pink. They had sprung up, said my father, after a huge forest fire destroyed an older spruce-fir forest here when he was my age.

Suddenly the ice boomed like thunder beneath us; King and I both jumped. “Just the sun warming the pond, son,” laughed Dad, and showed me old rents (cracks) that had refrozen. Now we could make out tiny figures moving among them. Soon we were among them, being hallooed, stretching our legs. My father, having blanketed sweaty King, charged me to keep clear of falling trees and was soon plying axe and bucksaw with the rest.

My favourite parts were the noonday fire with bread and tea and roasted capelin, and our slow plod home with loaded sleds in rosy dusk with muted harness tinklings among darkling silent trees. Perched on the load, one arm crooked around a bobsled horn for safety, For a atime I played lookout on our ship of logs. Then the rhythmic swish of King’s long black tail, the creaking sleds, the squeak of snow, lulled me to sleep.

Next thing I knew, lamp-lit windows twinkled like fireflies through the trees, followed by my father’s “Whoa!” and a sliding, gravelly halt. We were home. And supper was still hot in the oven. Patient old King was unhitched, taken to his stall, watered and fed. The firewood, first of several loads, would be stacked wigwam-style tomorrow by Dad and my older brother Calvin.

If birch was our premier stovewood, fir was our poorest. Nor did we in those years even bring a fir tree indoors for Christmas. That was a German custom brought to Britain by young Queen Victoria’s prince-consort Albert. Overseas, even in her oldest colony, Newfoundland, it took time to catch on. I recall only one childhood Yule with a tree.

No, fir to me meant Bonfire Night, November 5, the night they foiled Guy Fawkes's 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and his Parliament. Adults celebrated by burning unwanted stuff; my teen-aged friends and I did so by burning small balsam fir. For weeks beforehand, cutting and dragging them to the landwash, our hands and clothes were black with the resin. But leaping through the flames was a grand way to impress girls.

As teens we fared deeper into that wilderness. Spring and summer, swinging alder poles, we haunted Clarkes Brook for trout. And wintertime, almost every fine Saturday, Everett and I hurried through chores—woodbox, water barrel and homework--grabbed axe or gun or both and hiked the Portage Road. “Home before dark, ye hear ?” was our only constraint, a brace of rabbits our only duty.

Bit by bit we were learning the hunter-gatherer trades. This alarmed my mother. Raised among cod fishers and coopers on nearly treeless Fogo Island, she'd say, “No, my son, don't be coming home reeking of wood smoke and muskrat like your father. No, get yourself a good education and a nice safe office job.”

Actually, after age 12 I had a double dream: to be a riverman/landscape painter. That year, living in nearby Lewisporte where my 19-year-old brother now had a job, I'd seen a colour film on Canadian artist Tom Thomson that moved me deeply. I could already draw; now I wanted to paint.

Now it was my father's turn to be alarmed. Though proud of my talent, he'd seen what poverty can do. Driving streetcars in Buffalo, New York in 1929, he

d watched the bread lines and soup kitchens, its shabby, shuffling men forever seeking work that was no longer there. Though well educated for his time—Grade 11 at Bishop Feild[sic]College in St John's— it was such scenes that persuaded him to head back home to become a trapper and guide like his forebears until he could afford to become a successful outfitter. “You can always paint on weekends, my son,” he said kindly. How may promising creative souls have taken that advice? I did.

And when, years later, an angler client told him about a five-year Newfoundland government forestry scholarship to the University of New Brunswick, he urged me to try for it. That, and the prospect of five years' free tuition for two years' service in Island forestry, won out. My Grade 11 marks being good enough, I applied. UNB, to its credit—I lacked Chemistry, Latin and lab credits—accepted me.

So began my adult life with trees. And in 1959, after four summers of cruising timber, planting tress and fighting no-see-ums on the Island and in Labrador, I got my BSc in Forestry. Then in quick succession I got married, became a regional forester, found the job too politicized, got accepted into second year at the Ontario College of Art, taught forestry for two years at Memorial University's new St John's campus, completed a Fine Arts degree at Mount Allison University and, in 1965, finally found in Nova Scotia the job which, I see now, finally let me marry art, writing and forestry.

The art was chiefly illustration; but it got me doing serious painting on weekends, which led to a modest regional solo and group shows. No national fame, just occasional exposure Upalong via Expo 67, the Canada Art Bank and other venues. The writing was mainly editing the work of others; but two long-ago high school teachers had praised my essays, so I wrote two children's books, which led to magazine work in spare time, and, after early retirement, to a dozen non-fiction titles embracing biography, humour, two essay collections, a highway nature guide, a wildlife book, a childhood memoir and, last year, the aforementioned tree memoir.

And forestry? It paid the bills. Was my father right after all? Hard to say. No hard feelings though.

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