Wilderness and the Canadian Mind: Treatment of Nature in Canadian Literature

Wilderness and the Canadian Mind: Treatment of Nature in Canadian Literature
Since Northrop Frye first proposed his ?garrison mentality? thesis in 1943, many literary critics have debated its validity as a representation of early Canadian attitudes towards Nature. In the 1970s a number of books were produced, which dealt with this thematic element at great length. Most of these supported Frye?s theory and demonstrated the tendency of Canadian writers to depict Nature in negative ways. A more recent article by Mary Lu MacDonald has tried to counter this prevailing notion, and attempts to argue that there was, before 1850, an ?essentially positive view of the Canadian landscape.? (MacDonald 48) While I applaud MacDonald?s attempt, her response to the likes of Atwood, Moss, and Frye is lacking in a number of significant ways. Her criticism is often inaccurate and I feel it does not go far enough in demonstrating the weaknesses of Frye?s thesis.
While Frye?s thesis may be valid in as far as it discusses Canadian poetry, it largely ignores a large body of Canadian literature, namely that written by nineteenth-century, often female, middle-class settlers. In this body of literature one finds not only an abundance of negative images of the Canadian wilderness, but also a surprising abundance of positive images as well. An analysis of this literature reveals a curious ambiguity in middle-class attitudes towards wilderness and the nature of the Canadian environment. The authors, primarily women, came to Canada with preconceived notions of what Nature should be. These notions were generally reflective of European Romantic or Wordsworthian attitudes towards nature. The ambiguity or contradiction one finds in their writing is due in part to the tension between believing in these preconceived ideas and the reality of living within nature itself. Unlike Wordsworth, these ladies were not able to retreat from their own ?Ruined Cottages? to cosy, cosmopolitan coffee houses, but had to live out their days in the midst of the ?sublime? wilderness. The result of this isolation, and the physical stress of having to live and work in conditions far ?below? what they were used to, is the negative imagery, which is usually found in relation to the effects of the wilderness on their standard of living. The sublime tree of a Wordsworth poem is, in the context of the Canadian environment, an obstacle to settlement and, due to the high cost of labour in Canada, it is also a threat to the middle-class gentlemanly way of life. However, despite the negative imagery in such books as Roughing it in the Bush or Backwoods of Canada, the Canadian environment is not generally regarded as hostile to the nineteenth-century women writers. It may be ambivalent, or indifferent, but it is rarely ?sinister and menacing,?(Frye ?Canada? 210) and it is never the ?nature red in tooth and claw that Frye refers to? (Frye ?Conclusion? 843).


Frye first proposed his thesis in a 1943 review of J.M. Smith?s Book of Canadian Poetry, and he states there that ?the outstanding achievement of Canadian poetry is in the evocation of stark terror? in regards to Nature. This tone of deep terror is not a coward?s terror, but ?a controlled vision of the causes of terror?( Frye ?Canada? 209). It is a terror, not of ?the dangers or even the mysteries of nature, but a terror of the soul at something that these things manifest?( Frye ?Conclusion? 830). The immediate source of this achievement, according to Frye, is obviously the frightened loneliness of a huge and thinly settled country. Even the unusual physical characteristics of entering Canada affect the European traveller to this country. Unlike the United States, which Frye describes as mainly a ?culture of the Atlantic seaboard? down to the 1900s, with London and Edinburgh on one side and New York and Boston on the other, Canada has, for all practical purposes no Atlantic seaboard. The European traveller to Canada:

Edges into it like a tiny Jonah entering an inconceivably large whale, slipping past the Straits of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence . . . He then goes up the St. Lawrence and the inhabited country comes into view, mainly a French speaking country, with its own cultural traditions. To enter the United States is a matter of crossing an ocean; to enter Canada is a matter of being silently swallowed by an alien continent. (824)

So the source of the fear is historical then. Because Canada began as a series of small, outpost communities set amidst a menacing continent that could be penetrated but, unlike the American model, not pushed back, Canadians retained a psychological, as well as a political and economic connection with England. The need to maintain these connections with the mother country for security made Nature, for many Canadians, the evil antithesis of all they cherished in English Society: order, security, and, above all, civilization. George Altmeyer sums up Frye?s argument well when he says that ?Frye?s thesis claims that, because Canadian did not make the psychological break with Europe through revolution, they could not face the harsh realities of North American Nature with the same positive attitude as the Americans? (Altmeyer 21).

As Altmeyer points out, Frye?s conception of Nature as the reservoir of a vast unconsciousness of sinister intent has coloured all subsequent attempts to investigate the theme of Nature in Canadian literature. It should be noted here that while some, myself included, have recognized John Moss as a supporter of Frye, or at least Frye?s notion of a negative response to nature by Canadian writers, he does clearly disagree with Frye on this particular point. In Patterns of Isolation, Moss argues that:

Nowhere in our literature, that I can see, is adequate support to be found for these obtrusive assumptions. With few exceptions, Canadian writers have perceived nature itself to be amoral, impassive, indifferent. The landscape and its seasons have no ethics, no consciousness. Nature is neither wilful nor benign, malevolent nor beneficent. Some of our writers respond to it with hostility, some with reverence, or hope, or fear, but the emotion is in their response ? neither emotion nor conscious design is apparent in nature itself. (111)

However, Moss does not reject Frye?s thesis entirely, which is why I have included him in with the likes of Margaret Atwood and Marcia Kline. Moss contends that ?when Northrop Frye and others . . . refer to the `garrison mentality? that permeates the Canadian experience, their observations are accurate . . . but incomplete as a basis for literary analysis? (15). The problem for Moss is that the ?garrison? is only one of the ?patterns of exile? that he recognizes in Canadian fiction, one of the ?four double visions of society, of reality?(12). Each of these four visions corresponds to a metamorphic stage in the country?s historical development, and they are the garrison exile, frontier exile, colonial exile, and immigrant exile. Only the first two are important to this study and so I will explain them. According to Moss, the garrison:

is a closed community whose values, customs, and manners have been transported virtually intact from some other environment and are little affected by the new surroundings. It is a stage of occupation. The emotions and relationships sustained by lack of assimilation or reconciliation can be quite foreign to the experience of either world.

The frontier, in contrast, is a context of undifferentiated perimeters, where the experience of one reality comes into direct conflict with that of another, a more immediate and amorphous reality. The frontier provides an alternative to conventional society. It is a place of flight and of discovery, a condition of individual being, in the struggle to endure. (12)

It is to this latter stage of the frontier exile that I believe the works I will be looking at belong, rather than to that of the garrison. Since Frye has apparently only focused on one of these four stages that Moss has identified, Moss criticizes Frye?s thesis as ?incomplete.?

Marcia B. Kline, on the other hand, clearly uses Frye?s idea of a malevolent force in nature in her book, Beyond the Land Itself. It is used here to explain the difference between American writers who show a positive attitude towards nature and Canadian ones who see nature as ?part of a world that is terrifying, hostile to human values and human endeavor, and inferior to civilization? (Kline 25). This difference, according to Kline, is due to the way Canadians not only maintained a connection to England following the American Revolution, but also tended to set themselves in opposition to this revolutionary or ?republican? attitude. As John P. Matthews argues, Canadians, in rejecting the Revolution, and the affirmation of ?natural rights? that it represented, were embracing the belief that rights were derived from the ?toils of previous generations? and from civilization. Any mystical element came, therefore, not from the land as in the United States, but from ?the nature of the responsibility which one held as a link in the chain between the past and the future . . . the land itself in Canada took no animistic role in this process? (Matthews 22).

The result of this difference is that Canadians came to lump together America, the land, and natural rights into one large bundle called environment, and then defined themselves in opposition to it all. The environment was not just the physical environment of the New World then; ?it also included the American response to the New World, which in itself was a repudiation of England and a joyful acceptance of Nature? (Kline 55). Since Canadians rejected one of the facets of that bundle ? the American response stated in 1776 ? they had to reject the other. It is with this explanation in mind that Kline is able to state that ?Canadian writing, looked at in this light, is marked by a profound fear of the natural world? (42). As I will show, this was not the case with the women in my study, and in particular with the Strickland sisters. While concerned for the weak and thoughtless men, who might be corrupted by too much freedom, the sisters clearly show an appreciation for the liberating atmosphere of the Canadian wilderness.

In a manner similar to Kline, Margaret Atwood asserts that Nature in Canadian literature is ?often dead and unanswering or actively hostile to man.? Canadian writers, according to Atwood, do not trust Nature ?they are always suspecting some dirty trick.? The source of this distrust is that Nature is often accused of having betrayed expectations, it was supposed to be different. This betrayal has its source in the English literary tradition of the ?cult of the sublime and the picturesque? (Atwood 49). The result is a tension between what you were officially supposed to feel and what you actually encountered in the Canadian environment ? and the resultant sense of being gypped. Atwood then goes on to make her real point in this chapter, aptly titled ?Nature the Monster,? which is that death by Nature (or what she terms ?death by bushing?) ?is an event of startling frequency in Canadian literature?(54). It is here that she embraces Frye?s malevolent force in Nature idea.

In contrast to these literary critics is Mary Lu MacDonald who attempts to argue against this prevailing notion that early Canadians perceived themselves as surrounded by a hostile natural world. This idea, she argues, has triumphed over contrary evidence, for as far as the literature written and read by our ancestors is concerned, ?the fact is that before 1850, with few exceptions, all evidence points to an essentially positive literary view of the Canadian landscape? (MacDonald 48). However noble her cause, MacDonald?s criticism of Frye, Atwood, and Moss is often inaccurate. The first inaccuracy comes in her introductory paragraph when MacDonald states that this ?triumph of an idea over contrary evidence is generally buttressed with references to Wacousta and Roughing it in the Bush? (48). This is a curious statement since these works and their authors do not figure prominently in either of Frye?s essays, or in Atwood?s Survival. While Moss does draw heavily on Richardson?s best know ?garrison? novel, his references to Susanna Moodie are in his placement of her as an ?immigrant exile? stressing her racism, not her sensitivity toward the natural world.

As I have mentioned, Frye largely ignores Susanna Moodie and her siblings Catherine Parr Traill and Samuel Strickland, as well as other writers of a similar vein such as Anne Langton, Elizabeth Simcoe, Anna Jameson, and Daisy Phillips, all of whom wrote of their experiences in the Canadian wilderness. This lack is due to the fact that Frye?s main concern in his work is with Canadian poetry, although in his conclusion to the Literary History of Canada he does make the stretch to fiction. Frye does make some references to the treatment of Moodie by other authors in the book and at one point calls Moodie a ?one-woman garrison? (Frye ?Conclusion? 839), however his reference to Wacousta is surprisingly even more fleeting. Atwood does quote from Roughing it in the Bush at one point in Survival, but this is to make a point about Mrs. Moodie?s Romantic literary background, and declaring that Moodie?s essentially positive description of the scene at Grosse Isle ?reads like a dictionary of early nineteenth-century Nature adjectives? (Atwood 50). The point to be made here is that neither Frye nor Atwood ?buttress? their arguments with references to these works, nor do they deny outright the positive elements in Canadian literature. As mentioned already, Atwood recognizes the tension between the positive and negative, and Frye is making point about what he sees as a consistent pattern of imagery in Canadian poetry. It may be, according to Frye, the most important pattern, but by no means is it the only pattern. For MacDonald to effectively counter Frye?s thesis, she would have to address the works he does cite instead of setting up a straw man in the form of Wacousta. A more useful example would have been Earle Birney?s David, which I find conspicuous in its absence from MacDonald?s study.

Another problem with MacDonald?s argument is in her insistence on the Romantic mode of Canadian poets. I feel that, while certainly influential, this trait was not always enough to overcome the powerful contradictions many of these men and women faced in the backwoods of Canada. MacDonald argues that the aesthetic and theological principles, upon which the Canadian mind was based, were further reinforced by the fact that ?most of the area was, and still is, scenically very attractive? (MacDonald 49). This statement flies in the face of what G. M. Craig says in Early Travellers in the Canadas 1791-1867, where he argues that Britons used to the Alps and to Greece were unimpressed by the scenery or the historical associations of Canada (Dilley 203). Craig is backed up by Basil Hall?s accounts in Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828 where he states that taken ?all in all, a more unpicturesque country is hardly to be found anywhere? (Dilley, Footnote 29, 203). Part of the tension I have found in the works I will be looking at is the way the Canadian wilderness did not always live up to the expectations of the immigrants. There is a genuine attempt to describe the Canadian environment in the Romantic mode of Wordsworth or Burke, but often the author, with one notable exception, is left feeling disappointed.


It is not my intention to attempt, in this paper, the kind of analysis I have just suggested MacDonald should have done. Rather than examining poetry or fiction I will instead look at how Frye?s thesis may be applied to the writings of nineteenth-century, English speaking, immigrant women in Canada. Since the works of these writers have largely been ignored by those engaged in this debate, I feel this is a worthy area of study. Did these late Victorian and early Edwardian women perceive Nature as hostile? Were they really, in the words of Frye, one-woman garrisons? I will argue that while there was a certain tension between what these women expected Nature to be and what they encountered, they consistently described the natural environment of the Canadian wilderness in positive terms. The above tension is, as Atwood says, a product of the exposure of these women to the works of English writers like Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth. According to these writers Nature was ?good? and cities were ?evil.? If Wordsworth was right and Nature was a kind Mother or Nurse who would guide man if would only listen to her, then Canada ought to have been ?the Great Good Place? (Atwood 50). These women came to Canada and expected, especially those who came with the intention of writing and publishing their experiences, to see a particular kind of Nature. Often they were gratified, as Moodie?s often quoted Grosse Isle passage is testament to, but frequently they were disappointed.

This disappointment, and the negative imagery this disappointment created in the minds of these pioneers, has a number of possible sources. As Atwood suggests, there is the tension and stress of having to live in the wilderness. The wilderness may be ?sublime? when viewed from a ship on arrival into the St. Lawrence valley, but it is quite different when one is placed in its midst in a tiny one room cabin, especially if one is used to more spacious dwellings and the luxury of hand servants. The negative imagery in books like Roughing it in the Bush and Backwoods of Canada tend to be found when the authors are discussing their immediate surroundings, while the positive imagery is of Nature at a distance. Hence the scene around Peterborough that is described by Mrs. Traill as a ?beautiful natural park, finely diversified with hill and dale, covered with a lovely green sward, enamelled with a variety of the most exquisite flowers? (Traill 66) may have contained, to ?the mere traveller, who cares little for the minute beauties of scenery, a certain monotony in the long and unbroken line of woods, which insensibly inspires a feeling of gloom almost touching on sadness? (53). The reference to the ?mere traveller? with limited sensibilities is important as it indicates that appreciation of Canadian scenery requires more then a cursory gaze.

As mentioned above, the antipathy toward nature one finds in these works is occasionally, but only occasionally, the result of a feeling that the Canadian wilderness is not an aesthetically pleasing place. As Edward Dahl argues, the words used to describe the wilderness often betray this attitude (Dahl 5). The forests encountered by these women are often ?dark? and ?gloomy,? or ?monotonous? and ?melancholy.? Mrs. Moodie describes the pine groves frowning down ?in hearse-like gloom? (Moodie Roughing, 1997, 22). In describing the ?sublime desolation of a northern winter? Anna Jameson mentions the ?dark, melancholy pine-forest, slumbering drearily in the hazy air? (Jameson 32). During one ill fated trip through the bush around Peterbourough, Traill speaks about how they ?emerged from the depths of the gloomy forest to the shores of the beautiful little lake, that gleamed the more brightly from the contrast of the dark masses of foliage that hung over it? (Traill 84-5). Mrs. Moodie talks about the waves in mid-channel that ?flashed along in dazzling light, rendered more intense by the surrounding darkness.? (Moodie Roughing, 1997, 22). Or the small lake in front of her sister?s hut which ?formed such a pretty object in the summer, now looked like an extensive field covered in snow, hemmed in from the rest of the world by a dark belt of sombre pine-woods? (204). The contrast between the gloom of the forest and the brightness of the open water of lake or stream is repeated often enough to illustrate the tension I have been talking about.

There appears, in these accounts, to be a real desire to describe the scenery around these women in Romantic language, but that is often frustrated by the realities faced in the bush. The search for the sublime and the picturesque is frequently met with disappointment, and this disappointment is often voiced quite clearly. Mrs. Traill, expressing her disappointment in the forest trees of Canada, declares that there is

a want of picturesque beauty in the woods. The young growth of timber alone has any pretension to elegance of form, unless I except the hemlocks, which are extremely light and graceful, and of a lovely refreshing tint of green. Even when winter has stripped the forest the hemlock is still beautiful and verdant. The young beeches too are pretty enough, but you miss that fantastic bowery shade that is so delightful in our parks and woodlands at home. (Traill 81-2)

Her failure to find ?hoary giants almost primeval with the country itself, as greatly exceeding in majesty of form the trees of [her] native isles, as the vast lakes and mighty rivers of Canada exceed the lochs and streams of Britain? (81) leaves her feeling quite disappointed. Mrs. Traill is not alone in this regard either. Of Sturgeon Lake, Anne Langton writes, ?the lake has little beauty or picturesque scenery? (Langton 27). In describing the falls at Niagara, Anna Jameson admits that she has ?no words for [her] utter disappointment.? Like Mrs. Traill, Anna?s disappointment is caused by the creation of ?an illusion far more magnificent than itself? since her ?first imagination was awakened to wonder and to wish.? So profound is this feeling of disappointment that Jameson wishes she had never seen the falls, that they were still ?a thing unbeheld ? a thing to be imagined, hoped, and anticipated? (Jameson 42). The problem is that Anna, like many British women, had grown up reading accounts of falls and of their sublime grandeur. She does not presume to suppose that these accounts are false or exaggerated, but instead blames her own lack. Still, the disappointment remains, and all the associations she had imagined and gathered round the scene, ?its appalling terrors, it soul-subduing beauty, power and height, and velocity and immensity, were all diminished in effect, or were wholly lost? (42). Such accounts of utter disappointment are rare to be sure, but there are plenty of other less dramatically rendered ones.

The Langton women also expressed disappointment at seeing the Niagara Falls for the first time. Mrs. Langton perceives her sister-in-law?s disappointment, but this was most likely a disappointment of being unable to convince any of her companions to go with her to those ?dizzy stations on the bank?(Langton 18). Anne herself says she was ?unsatisfied? at first, but like Anna Jameson, her disappointment was directed more at her own ?incapacity to conceive? the "vastness of the scene (29). Mrs. Langton expresses her own disappointment at the falls however, particularly at the noise, which was surprisingly ?by no means astounding nor any hindrance to conversation.? The disappointment is not, as I have said, quite as complete as that expressed by Anna Jameson, for Mrs. Langton admits that the ?magnitude of water and its whole significance seems to grow on you and you feel wonder, awe, and something still more as you contemplate it? (18). Still there is, in both Jameson?s and Mrs. Langton?s responses to Niagara Falls, a clear tension between the desire to describe, and more importantly to feel, these Romantic emotions of ?wonder? and ?awe,? and the emotions one actually felt.

What makes a scene picturesque is not always clear from the writings. It may be a waterfall or stream, but most often the expression is one of variety. Monotony is not picturesque. The above quoted description of the Peterborough area by Traill is a good example. The plains ?form a beautiful natural park? because they are ?finely diversified with hill and dale.? It is the ?certain monotony? of the unbroken line of trees that inspires feeling of gloom in the mere traveller. On a canoe voyage Jameson says,

This day we had a most delightful run among hundreds of tiny islands; sometimes darting through narrow rocky channels, so narrow that I could not see the water on either side of the canoe; then emerging, we glided through vast fields of white water-lilies; it was perpetual variety, perpetual beauty, perpetual delight and enchantment. (Jameson 425)

The Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence was apt to elicit such a response. Mrs. Simcoe writes, ?the different sizes and shapes of these innumerable Isles has a very pretty appearance? (Simcoe 70). Rice Lake is also ?prettily diversified with small wooded islets? (Traill 50). The variety may be even less pronounced as a ?low spit of Land covered with wood . . . breaks the Horizon of the Lake which greatly improves the view?(Simcoe 101). Cultivation or some form of civilization also may create such a variety in the Canadian bush, making a melancholy forest into a picturesque park. Anne Langton suggests that the ?appearance of the village on the side of the hill, the houses interspersed among the trees, had a most beautiful and striking effect? (Langton 21). Crane Island produced a similar response in Mrs. Traill, who says,

The situation of this island is of itself very beautiful. Around it are the waters of the St. Laurence [sic], bearing on its mighty current the commerce of several nations: in the foreground are the populous and lively settlements of the southern shores, while behind and far far above it rise the lofty range of mountains to the north, now studded with rural villages, pleasant farms, and cultivated fields. (Traill15)

Even the suggestion of a park was enough, such as the level heights beyond Peterborough, which were ?thinly wooded with picturesque groups of oak and pine, and very much resembled a gentlemen?s park at home? (Moodie Roughing, 1997, 198). However, there is tension here as well for, while the cultivated side of the St. Lawrence may delight the eye, it is not as picturesque as the northern side (Traill 12). And of course the ?odious stumps? left from clearing the land for cultivation ?disfigure? the Canadian scenery (Traill 80, Langton 15). Still, while her admiration of mountainous scenery causes her to ?dwell with more interest,? on the north side of the river, Mrs. Trail also watches the ?progress of cultivation among these rugged and inhospitable regions with positive pleasure? (Traill 11). Anne Langton also feels that when her brother?s cabin is completed and a ?few plantations made to ornament it . . . it will look very pretty? (Langton 28). The hand of man can apparently render the Canadian bush as much, or more, picturesque than can Nature.

The feeling of disappointment in the picturesque quality of the Canadian wilderness aside, there is another source of the negative images in the writings of these women, and that is in the effect of the wilderness on their standard of living. Most of the women in this study belong to what Richard Mackie has termed the ?bush gentry? (Mackie 126). These are educated, middle class immigrants from the professional or land-owning classes of Britain, who while living in the countryside and conforming to a rural aesthetic, had rarely farmed before coming to Canada. Their most common reflection on their degradation upon enter the Canadian bush is made in regards to the lack of servants in Canada, or more precisely the high cost of labour. Clearing the land of numerous large trees was an essential part of the settler?s experience. Owing to the abundance of work and the shortage of labour, the upper middle-class gentlemen farmers, to whom these women were married, often found it too costly to hire help.

Wilderness and the Canadian Mind: Treatment of Nature in Canadian Literature 8.9 of 10 on the basis of 705 Review.