Sunday, 16 December 2012

Why can't I walk across the farmers' fields?

One of the benefits of being married to someone who isn't from 'here' - from Canada that is - is that you sometimes get to see how odd we Canadians are. Now, my wife is only English so we're not talking about exotic realms of difference, but differences there are.

Take 'rights of way' for example - or the absence of them. We now live in the country, amidst the farmer's fields that came to look this way at some point in the mid 19th century (not too far from where Susannah Moodie roughed it in the bush). If we want to go out for a walk, we have a couple of acres ourselves. It's good for the kids to play hide and seek, but not exactly the kind of acreage for a long ramble. The only other option is to walk up and down the rural roads, the lines separating the sections and farms. It's all quite nice but it's not at all how one would walk in England.

If we lived in Leicestershire or Devon or anywhere in England, we wouldn't be nearly so respectful of private property. Instead we would traipse through farmer's fields, next to cows (and hopefully not bulls), climbing over fences using the stiles that are put up by the farmers (sometimes grudgingly) to make our lives easier. The farmers may not always like the groups of hikers gallivanting across their property, but that's the way it is. These are the rights of way - the ancient rights of way. This is how people have walked in the past, getting between villages and across the country. They weren't put there for modern nature lovers and fresh-air enthusiasts. But we can use them now, all the same.

But in Canada... not so much.

There might be some of these rights of way. People do have, theoretically, riparian rights-of-way - that is the right to walk along the edges of the water. But try heading up to cottage country and doing this on a July weekend and see how long it takes before you're greeted by shouts and threats.

We may be, in so many legal ways, a British country. But our colonization happened, mostly, far too late for any of these traditions to take hold before they were wiped away by modern capitalism.

Of course, there were 'rights of way' so to speak. There were others who had used the land before. But the founding of Canada was built purposefully across these other, more ancient ideas of the land and how it could be used.

And so we're left with the right angle and the rural route. It is one telling example of the Canadian stunted landscape and past. We're left with a contemporary politics that posits aboriginal ideas of landscape vs the modern Western rationally-controlled, privately-owned landscape. We're left with these bizarre dichotomies between the supposedly so antithetical ideas of nature of the settler and the colonized.

And yet, and yet, the dichotomies have more to do with the timing of colonization. It has more to do with the enforced forgetting that comes with colonization. It is the opposite of what those cultural political scientists used to say about the New World - Louis Hartz and his ilk. For them, it was all about fragments of old world culture, cut off from their original context, and heading in new directions. Yet, here it seems more likely to say that the opposite happened - in a more Turnerian fashion - that the new world context meant forgetting and obliterating the past because the past wasn't 'ours', it wasn't the ancient traditions of the right culture. Yet, when it came to the land, the settlers had in fact their own ancient, dare I say, aboriginal, conceptions of the landscape. And these, by virtue of the very fact of removal, of going outside of their original context, were not brought to the new world.

Year by year, decade by decade, as the train and then car came to shuffle people about, the very idea of 'rights of way', the notion that people's private property hadn't, in the old world, been only 'their' property, slowly disappeared, an idea no longer relevant because it was no longer lived.

Now it's a foreign concept, something to be discovered on a trip to England. Or something that someone's English wife could point out, again and again: a reminder of the exotic Canadian reality; a recognition of the wide gulf of our not-so-common language and history.

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