The second experiential phase of this project and the natural corollary to this summer’s attempt to walk to armageddon as it were, is a paddling journey in Algonquin Park. Wildly popular with campers and canoeists in the summer months, the park’s interior is comparatively deserted by early October, though day-trippers abound along the highway (and its shoulders), come to view the vibrant ‘colour’ that sets the deciduous forests ablaze. Highway hazards aside, this really is the ideal time of year to travel in Algonquin – at least for my purposes.
It’s been some time, so permit me a brief recap in this connection. I’m studying British/imperial soldiers’ reactions to the environmental destruction they witnessed on the Western Front. Hence my walking tour of the battlefields this summer seeking evidence of that environment in its natural state’ and of the marks left on it by the conflict.
One medium in which I’m hoping to trace such reactions is painting, i.e. works by war artists with first-hand experience of the trenches. Did such experiences change their views of the ‘natural’ world and its’ place in their oeuvre? Nash, Nevinson, and Orpen are probably the names that immediately jump to mind at the mention of war artists. But there were many others, including four members of the Group of Seven, famous for their distinctive landscape scenes of Canadian wilderness, including many set in Algonquin Park. Two, A.Y. Jackson and F. Varley, had extensive experience of the Western Front. This ‘coincidence’ poses a simple question. Is there any connection between witnessing the unprecedented destruction of the natural environment on the Western Front and choosing to make pristine wilderness not only the subject of their paintings but also the centerpiece of a new national identity for Canadians?
This is a complex question and it is impossible to do any more in this context than tease out some of its more salient facets. Most salient of all of course is the extreme contrast presented between these two environments. Algonquin is a place of stunning landscapes. Rolling, densely wooded hills fall away into clear lakes broken up by thrusting, tree crested islands. In clear skies the play of light on the trees and water is filled with drama and even on dull days, when gray skies glower low overhead there there is magic where water, earth, and sky meet. It takes no time at all to understand the attraction exerted by this environment on those with an eye for landscape. Nor does it take long to realize how different it is from northern France and Flanders. Even taking the whole matter of the war out of the comparison, the contrasts are remarkable. Though Flanders and Northern France are both in their own way very beautiful, graced with a bounty of lush vegetation and sweeping views, they are also domesticated landscapes in ways that Algonquin is not and has never been (despite early settlers and much logging). Woods are small and held in close check by the sprawling fields all around, waterways are managed and manipulated, and everywhere there are the concrete manifestations of civilization: houses and towns, cart tracks and highways, turbines and industrial complexes, cemeteries and monuments. They are busy places for all that they present an image of pastoral peace to the urbanite: cars buzz along the highways and lanes, tractors and trucks send up clouds of dust in the fields, cyclists clatter along country tracks. Algonquin – in October at least – is anything but. With the access point is left behind and with it the casual sight-seers and the water-taxis, one enters a different kind of sonic environment. It is not perfectly pristine – the wonders of modern air travel see to that – but it is altogether different than Northern France or Flanders. Aircraft aside, loons are the most serious disturbers of the peace, joined intermittently in their sonic hooliganism by wolves, ravens, and bullfrogs. For the most part it is so quiet, that the sound of paddles dipping and dripping seemed harsh and jarring whenever I started up after a short break.
Factor in the very different environment that existed in Northern France and Flanders during the Great War and the contrast becomes even more distinct – though that’s an entirely inadequate term. Returning to a wild place like Algonquin after experiencing the horrific impact of modern industrialized warfare on the environment must have been a remarkable and remarkably affecting experience.
But what impact might awareness of this contrast had – if indeed it struck those who survived? In terms of the Group of Seven at least, experience of the War was hardly the determinant of the ‘style’ they adopted or of their interest in landscape. Tom Thompson, the most famous ‘member’ of the the Group of Seven (he pre-deceased its official formation) never travelled to Europe, much less the Western Front. For his part, Jackson was already moving toward a style that is unmistakably Group of Seven before the war. Indeed, he had been to Algonquin and made it the subject of paintings before going off to war, where he was wounded (near Maple Copse in the Ypres Salient) before becoming an official war artist and returning to the front. So it could be that the war was a meaningless and momentary pause in a straight and clear trajectory of artistic growth. Or maybe the awareness of mortality that followed from service at the front simply brought new drive and clarity of purpose to ideas and projects that had germinated in earlier days.
Personally, I can’t help but think (speculating wildly here, but indulge me) that the energy with which he threw himself into the group project of creating a definitively Canadian style of painting that would contribute to a particular national identity owed something to his experiences during the war. Perhaps those experiences contributed to a sense of national pride linked to the manifold successes of the Canadian Corps during the war or at least a sense of the uniqueness of Canada and Canadians within the empire.
But why make the ‘north’, the wild landscapes of Algonquin and like places the symbolic focus of this exercise in identity invention? Of course it’s difficult in a country like Canada to escape the wilderness, what with its central role in our historical development and ever-present reminders that the vast majority of the country is in fact wilderness. Nevertheless, the choice can be seen as a deliberate rejection of much that Canada already was by that time. Certainly Southern Ontario and especially Toronto, the Group’s base, was in 1918 a relatively modern and industrialized place, a civilized place, as the word was then understood. Yet Jackson et al embraced an identity based on imagery that was just about as far from contemporary notions of ‘civilization’ as one could get outside the realms of fantasy. I wonder how much of Jackson’s drive down that path derived from the horrors he had witnessed, environmental and otherwise, on the Western Front? Had he come to see the war and the bounty of terrors it visited upon men and nature as the product of a particular kind of civilization? Was part of his aim to suggest that Canada need not follow slavishly the path of European industrial civilization, which might have seemed to lead inevitably to the inferno? And were the striking landscapes he painted meant to symbolize the different course he wished his countrymen to chart? In this light the wilderness as he saw and represented is not simply forbidding and frightening. It is dramatic yes, and powerful, but also perhaps evocative of youth and dynamism, and suggestive of new possibilities, including a different kind of identity and indeed a new kind of civilization.
There is something of that in the park still if one takes the time to feel it, a sense of freshness and of a fundamentally different perspective on life and the world. Whether Jackson or others like him actually felt any such thing in the aftermath of the Great War remains to be seen. For now, I’m working from the hypothesis that a process akin to the phenomenon described by Eksteins in Rites of Spring was in fact occurring in Canada: i.e. that cultural changes already coalescing in the Edwardian era emerged from the terrible crucible of conflict at once sharper and clearer and with a transformative vigour that owed something to the war itself.