Winter’s Great Lesson

Today, in honour of Canadian Thanksgiving (Monday, October 9th) I’m going to do something very un-Canadian: give thanks for . . .  Canadian winter!

I know, I know, we consider it the mortal bane of our very existence.

But I think we too often fail to appreciate all it’s given – and spared – us.

Winter has made us who we are. The great Quebecois singer/songwriter Gilles Vigneault said it best in his iconic winter tribute Mon Pays: Mon Pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver. (“My country isn’t a country, it’s the winter.”)

Shoulda been our national anthem, if you ask me.  But no one ever has.

Say what you will about the season we love to hate, it’s a great bulwark against the idlers, day trippers, wusses and wannabes who might only pretend  to want to be here.  This is no season for the faint of heart.  Sheer survival is no mean feat.  And, indeed, many species do not, which can also work in our favour.  Case in point: the Aegyptae sub-species of the common mosquito, which carries the Zika virus.

The severity and length of our Canadian winters has also militated against the introduction of certain historically labour-intensive row crops like cotton and tobacco, which could have given rise to slavery and a plantation economy, the corrosive effects of which can still be seen by a quick glance at our neighbour to the south.

Vigneault’s Mon Pays has also shaped our national character, in stark contrast to our neighbours in balmier climes.

We Canadians are sometimes known as “the Swiss of North America,” a not entirely flattering comparison.

The Swiss are known throughout Europe for being precise, orderly, peaceful, predictable—in a word, boo-ooring.  The winter has made us similarly communitarian, cooperative and civil.  We have no choice.  It’s work together or freeze to death in the dark.  Not for us the exuberance of the rugged individual, of grabbing a gun to settle neighbourly feuds.

A very wise man of my acquaintance once limned the differing political mantras that govern the continent: “Down there it’s ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ while with us it’s ‘peace, order, and good government.’”

Much flows from this – what? Nuance, wrinkle, shade of difference?  It is so much more than that.

As the days grow short and endless winter darkness looms like death itself, our impulse is instinctive, elemental, tribal: to build a communal fire! Around which we will foregather, hands extended to the warmth, telling our stories, singing reassuring songs to ward off the spectres lurking in the encircling shadows.

But it takes a village.  To wisely choose a cleared-out place, to assemble the combustibles, to spark, kindle, and patiently build the flame into a bonfire.

Look: winter, like entropy, will win in the end.  We feel this in our very marrow.

But until it does we wll take care of each other because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We will all pay higher taxes, pooling our resources, so that we can afford health care – and not armaments – for all.

And in this way we will all, in the aggregate, live longer and well.  Who knows?  We may even live to see the return of spring.

Winter’s great lesson. Happy Thanksgiving, Canada.

From the Archives · History

In Praise of the Lowly Poplar

Photo by Gyuszi Bacsi

This piece, written for my newspaper column On the Rock in 1992, was written under the heavy influence of the great Walt Whitman, whose literary blood also coursed through the veins of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, though I’m hardly in their league.

Still, it remains one of my all time favourites…

Last Saturday, in the Valley at least, was a special day that likely went uncelebrated by most of us.

Saturday was, you may recall, the first day of a glorious long weekend. But it was also the day that the poplars, burnished by a hot sun, caressed by a dry wind, burst their buds, releasing the first leafy foliage of summer.

It was an achingly beautiful sight, the timorous green against an azure sky, a dazzling relief to the harsh monochromes of winter and spring.

Maybe it’s time we paused to contemplate the lowly poplar. We Northerners, (and I am as guilty as the next) tend to take it for granted, dismissing it as “a garbage tree” or “an overgrown weed.”

Long scorned by the sawyer as a nuisance and by the wood burner as a greasy fibre that burns too hot and too fast, poplars tend to grow quickly, rot prematurely, and snap perilously in high winds.

And yet it is the most ubiquitous of deciduous trees in these parts, supremely adapted to the difficult latitudes of the Canadian Shield, thriving where its nobler cousins, the maple, ash, and oak cannot gain a foothold.

And I wonder, too, whether most of us here On the Rock are not a lot more like the poplar than we care to admit.

Continue reading “In Praise of the Lowly Poplar”

Books · History · Mining · The Insatiable Maw · The Raids · Wintersong

Wintersong Book Launch – Steelworkers Union Hall

Photos from the “Wintersong” book launch in Sudbury, Ontario at the Steelworkers Union Hall on May 7, 2017.

Left to right: Robin Philpot (Baraka Books), Mick Lowe, Oryst Sawchuk (multi-disciplined artist & Nickel Range illustrator)


The Raids, The Insatiable Maw, Wintersong (The Nickel Range Trilogy)