Category Archives: history

Voyage to the Spirit Mountains

Author and musician, Paul Quarrington, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, eloquently describes his plans to live each day as though it is his last, connecting with singing and the Canadian landscape.

Torngat Mountains

“As we journeyed through the Torngat Mountains, I finally realized what this trip was all about, for me. First of all, let me get a little scientific on you. The Torngats-comprised of Precambrian gneisses-are amongst the oldest mountains in the world, almost four billions years old. They rise out of the water with enchanted austerity. Sitting well above the tree line, the Torngats are stark naked and make no apology about it. Torngat is an Inuktitut word meaning Place of Spirits, and it very clearly is. The mountaintops are usually shrouded in cloud, and it’s easy enough to imagine the Spirits assembling there, going through the itinerary for another year. In short, the Torngat Mountains took what little breath I have away from me. The thought occurred that I was on another planet, and that’s when I realized, no, I’m on this planet, I’m just none too clear on what it actually looks like. I realized that what I wanted to do was spend a little time getting to know the third stone from the sun; it has been my home for 56 years, but I have spent much of it confined in the settlements. I wanted to explore and examine, I wanted to interact – yes, in the broadest, most spiritual sense.”

“So there, basically, you have the two main components of my plan for (what remains of) my future: singing and (spiritual) mountain climbing. For example, I think I’ll go fishing this week, getting to know Mother Ship Earth a bit better. I think I’ll go stand in a river just a few degrees above freezing and toss a yarn-fly into the current, over and over again, in the hopes of convincing some chromium-silver steelhead that the thing is edible. Or, I may simply go walkabout, kicking stones and major rock formations. I will build inuksuit (did you know that was the plural? I learned a lot on my voyages…) and I will try to build them across as much of the landscape as I can. In the meantime, I will be singing, all manner of songs. I will sing in Porkbelly Futures, I will sing with fiddlers and button accordionists, I will sing in Gospel choirs and Glee Clubs.”

Torngat Mountains

Inuit mythology tells of the Torngait, the spirits that a Shaman or spiritual leader looks to for wisdom and power. Torngat comes from this Inuit name and the legends which hold that in this region the spirit world overlaps our own. White people have called this area the Ghost Coast and have commented how the sounds of the winds whistling through the rugged mountains bring forth the feeling that one is in another realm. If the earth is home to ancient spirits they would seek out this land where the rocks are among the oldest on the planet and the landforms hold an otherworldly appearance. Perhaps this truly is a place of spirits.

The Torngat Mountains National Park Reserve is the new name for this ancient place. It is the northern portion of the Inuit homeland of Nunatsiavut, located in northern Labrador. (Nunatsiavut means “Our beautiful land” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The park reserve encompasses roughly 10,000 km2 and extends from the deep waters of Saglek Fjord in the south, to the very northern tip of Labrador; and from the boundary with Quebec in the west, to the waters of the Labrador Sea in the east.

The human history of the park is rich and ancient. Within the park there are hundreds of archaeological sites including tent rings, stone caribou fences, caches, and ancient graves, all of which tell the story of the peoples and cultures, particularly the Inuit, who have made this special landscape their home.

Ramah Chert

South of Nachvak Fjord is Ramah Bay, home to a unique translucent stone called Ramah chert. This mineral holds an edge that is sharper than surgical steel. It was so prized by the ancient peoples of Labrador that prior to contact with the Europeans, some used this mineral almost exclusively in their arrows and blades.

Paul Quarrington: Each Day Like It’s My Last at National Post.

More at Wanderbird Expedition Cruises.

Ramah Chert.

For Sydney, and for Linda Gordon who loves the landscape.

The Man Who Saved Akitas

Dog ManThe first dog came into their lives in 1944. They were living in Hachimantai, an undeveloped and remote part of Akita, the north-westernmost prefecture of Japan, after which the dog breed was named, and a 22-hour train ride from Tokyo in those days. Kitako Sawatoishi was 23, raising their first two children, a toddler and an infant. Her husband, Morie, was 28 and an engineer for Mitsubishi, assigned to electrify the far north, a region that had struggled with poverty and harsh weather for centuries. Even in the best of times, it was a forbiddingly beautiful but neglected part of Japan. Only two cities in the region had power in those days – Odate and Akita City – and the rest of the large prefecture of Akita was without electricity, piped-in gas, or heat throughout the long winter.

After decades of wars and skirmishes in Asia, Japan was now fighting the West. Three years into the Second World War, millions of Japanese had died on the battlefront and millions more were starving at home. But every day on the radio, the news was always encouraging. ‘We were winning, they always said, and victory was just around the corner,’ Kitako says.

But the war dragged on, and food became almost impossible to come by. Proper winter clothes – coats and boots – weren’t available either. Kitako learnt to make sandals out of straw, the same shoes she had been horrified to see the locals wearing when she first arrived in Akita. The air strikes on the cities of Japan began, city after city turned to ash. It seemed relatively safe in the mountains, but nobody knew when things had been worse.

Morie was on his way to another snow-country village that winter when he met up with a doctor he knew, a man who had kept akitas before the war. Morie and the doctor discussed the war, swapping stories about how bad things had got. ‘You know how bad things are?’ the doctor asked Morie. ‘People are eating their dogs.’ Desperate for money, they were selling the pelts to the military, which used them to line winter coats.

In some snow-country villages it was illegal to have a dog at all. The police rounded them up and clubbed them. The doctor had been trying to keep track of how many akitas were left. It was widely acknowledged that they would soon be wiped out.

He thought of Hachiko, the most famous dog in Japan, a pale-yellow akita owned by a Tokyo University professor in 1920. The professor had taught his dog, as a puppy, to accompany him every morning to the Shibuya train station and then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, to return to meet his train. The two of them were a familiar sight at the station, and people marvelled at the dog’s loyalty and obedience. When Hachiko was two years old, though, the professor had a stroke at work and was taken to hospital where he eventually died, never seeing his dog again. Yet Hachiko continued to meet the four o’clock train at Shibuya every day for the next nine years.

Souvenirs and postcard pictures of Hachiko were sold at the station. A song was written – Loyal Hachiko – and taught to schoolchildren all over Japan. Morie was 11 years old in 1927 when he read in the newspaper that a bronze statue of the akita had been erected at Shibuya, on the spot where the dog liked to wait.

Morie knew the Japanese government had used the story of Hachiko as propaganda to promote loyalty to the emperor and it bothered him to have heard, not long before, that the bronze statue of the dog had been melted down. So many things of Morie’s childhood weren’t surviving the war. And so many things that he loved about his country didn’t seem important to most people any more. What had happened to Japan? Who would be as loyal as a dog if there were no dogs left?

Morie SawataishiAs he walked home in the snow, a thought occurred to Morie. What if he bought the best akita he could find and kept it alive until the war was over? Perhaps there were dogs available to save and a network could be assembled.

By the time Japan surrendered in the summer of 1945, there were said to be only 16 akitas left in the country. Morie owned two of them. The following spring, with a litter of puppies on the way, Morie hosted the first post-war dog show in the snow country, an informal gathering of all the men who had kept dogs hidden during the war – a backyard affair that sounds, from his descriptions, as much about sake as it was about dogs.

The restitution of the akita breed became Morie’s passion and the decisive factor of his life. He raised four children with Kitako, and continued to build power plants for Mitsubishi until he retired at 63, but every spare moment of his life Morie spent training or showing his dogs, or hunting in the mountains with them. Eventually, as the akita breed began to stabilize genetically and conform to a set of physical standards, Morie gravitated to dogs with kisho, or spirit – energy, shrewdness, intelligence, courage.

Over the years, he guesses that he has raised or trained 100 akitas – many of them superb show champions as well as hunters. There was Three Good Lucks, a beautiful red dog who was poisoned by a rival owner. There was One Hundred Tigers, a very promising puppy for the show ring, until he lost his tail in a fence. Victory Princess was a stray with a biting problem who was dropped off at Morie’s door.

In autumn 2007, when Morie’s beautiful champion akita Shiro died at 15 – an unimaginably old age for an akita – Morie wondered if it wasn’t time for him to go, too. He planned a big funeral for his great white champion. A priest and dozens of mourners came. Morie still had two younger akitas left, but he lacked the energy to show them or take them hunting.

In June 2008, an earthquake came – the largest earthquake in Japan for seven years. Its epicentre was in Kurikoma, not too far from the Sawataishis’ house. Windows were shattered, a landslide caused a boulder to roll into the kitchen. Morie and Kitako, as well as the dogs, were forced to evacuate to the suburbs of Tokyo where their daughter Ryoko, a university professor of veterinary medicine, has a house and small animal clinic. It was a very difficult transition for Morie. ‘From having unlimited space in the mountains to being in a crowded suburb – it was a big adjustment,’ Mamoru says.

Not long after the ministry of disaster declared the Sawataishis’ mountain house uninhabitable for the time being, Morie was taken to hospital for high blood pressure and various other ailments. He stubbornly refused life-saving drugs or treatments. On October 22 he died with Kitako at his side. He was 92.

‘I’ve over-lived,’ Morie used to joke. He lasted much longer than he had expected. And he wasn’t afraid to die. He had seemed quite happy as he talked about dying – almost joyful. ‘At least I know what my life has been about.’

Full story at Telegraph UK

Dog Man by Martha Sherrill on Amazon.

Nagareboshi Gin and other dangerous dogs

The Decline of Book Making

About 1860, it was noted that printing quality was suffering in the throes of the Industrial Revolution.

Pennyroyal Caxton Bible

Henry Stevens, a Vermont-born rare-book seller in London and recognized proponent of fine printing wrote, “The disagreeable fact that our books are deteriorating in quality is assumed for the present and taken for granted. The fault exists and is daily becoming more and more manifest…”

“Our printing presses are teeming and steaming with books of all sorts (with some striking exeptions) not up to the mark of the high calling of book-making. It is no excuse to say that the rapidity of production has been largely increased. That amounts merely to confessing that we are now consuming two bad books in the place of one good one…”

“It is not the amiable public that is so hungry for cheap printing and cheap books, but the greedy provider of cheap and cheaper books with which the public is crammed like Strasburg geese, that are in fault. This downward tendency is not so much the fault of the consumers as the manufacturers. The manufacture of a beautiful and durable book costs little if anything more, it is believed, than it does to manufacture a coumsy and unsightly one.”

“Good taste, skill, and severe training are as requisitie and necessary in the proper production of books as in any other of the fine arts.”

Henry Stevens was engaged by the librarian of the British Museum, to collect historical books, documents and journals concerning North and South America; and he was purchasing agent for the Smithsonian Institution and for the Library of Congress, as well as for James Lenox, of New York, for whom he secured much of the valuable Americana in the Lenox library in that city, and for the John Carter Brown library, at Providence, Rhode Island. He became a member of the Society of Antiquaries in 1852, and in 1877 was a member of the committee which organized the Caxton Exhibition, for which he catalogued the collection of Bibles.

Image: Pennyroyal Caxton Bible

Atlas of Dying Languages

Earlier we blogged about the efforts of Canadians to save their dying languages.

UNESCO has now introduced an atlas of 2,500 languages worldwide that are in danger of becoming extinct or which have recently disappeared. That is out of a total of 6,000 world languages.

UNESCO Atlas of Languages

In a presentation Thursday of a new world atlas of endangered languages, linguists stressed the list is not restricted to small or far-flung countries. They also sought to encourage immigrants to treasure their native languages.

“Language endangerment is a universal phenomenon,” said Christopher Moseley, an Australian linguist who edited the atlas’ third edition, which is to appear in digital and paper versions.

The atlas says 200 languages have become extinct in the last three generations, and another 199 languages have fewer than 10 speakers left.

More than a fourth of the 192 languages once spoken in the United States have disappeared. Another 71 are severely endangered, according to the atlas.

There is Gros Ventre, spoken by fewer than 10 people in north-central Montana. All are elderly, and none is fully fluent. The last fully fluent speaker died in 1981.

Or Menomonee, spoken in northeast Wisconsin, with just 35 speakers left.

The digital version of the atlas invites users to contribute with updates and allows them to search according to country, degree of endangerment, name of languages or by number of speakers.

Type in Russia, and color-coded flags appear ranging from white (unsafe) – denoting languages such as Lezgian, spoken in the Caucasus Mountains – to red (critically endangered), marking those such as the Tundra Enets, spoken in Arctic islands.

Not all is bleak, however. Some endangered languages like Livonian are being revived by young people and through poetry.

Marleen Habard, editor of the atlas’ Andean regions, said indigenous groups in South America have been at the forefront of preserving their regional tongues by pressuring governments to recognize indigenous rights.

Some languages have only recently been discovered. Andoan was not known until a journalist discovered a small group of its speakers on the border between Peru and Ecuador in 2000, Harbard said.

Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said raising awareness of the importance of mother tongues is a crucial goal of the project.

“We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language,” she said.

A paper version of the 2009 atlas – which was funded by Norway and involved a team of over 30 linguists – will be launched in May.

Source: Toronto Star, February 20, 2009

Helvetica

HelveticaHelvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture. It looks at the proliferation of one typeface (which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2007) as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives. The film is an exploration of urban spaces in major cities and the type that inhabits them, and a fluid discussion with renowned designers about their work, the creative process, and the choices and aesthetics behind their use of type. The film had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2007.

Helvetica encompasses the worlds of design, advertising, psychology, and communication, and invites us to take a second look at the thousands of words we see every day.

HelveticaHelvetica was developed by Max Miedinger with Edüard Hoffmann in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland. In the late 1950s, the European design world saw a revival of older sans-serif typefaces such as the German face Akzidenz Grotesk. Haas’ director Hoffmann commissioned Miedinger, a former employee and freelance designer, to draw an updated sans-serif typeface to add to their line. The result was called Neue Haas Grotesk, but its name was later changed to Helvetica, derived from Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland, when Haas’ German parent companies Stempel and Linotype began marketing the font internationally in 1961.

Introduced amidst a wave of popularity of Swiss design, and fueled by advertising agencies selling this new design style to their clients, Helvetica quickly appeared in corporate logos, signage for transportation systems, fine art prints, and myriad other uses worldwide. Inclusion of the font in home computer systems such as the Apple Macintosh in 1984 only further cemented its ubiquity.

More about the film.

What font are you? Take the quiz!

This blogger is Times New Roman.

Saving Dying Languages

Dying LanguagesThe clock on the kitchen wall at the Moraviantown Reserve seniors’ centre loudly clicks away the seconds as Velma Noah waits to see if any of the few remaining speakers of a vanishing language can remember the word for “beet.”

Five elderly women and a man stare ahead of them, silently searching for a word they may not have heard since they were children, when nearly everyone on this small reserve could speak the language. Ms. Noah frets the cover of an English-Delaware dictionary, which might hold a clue. But if the word for beet isn’t in the book and she can’t tease it out of the minds of the three women most likely to know, one more piece of the language could be gone forever.

Alma Burgoon is 80; Retta Huff, 86; and her cousin Mattie Huff, 90. Along with one or two other elderly women on the reserve, “they’re the last known speakers. They’re all over the age of 70,” says Ms. Noah, 36-year-old mother of four.

Suddenly there’s chuckling around the folding table as someone remembers: maxkeetkweek.

Europeans gave this language the name Delaware (or Munsee Delaware), but its advocates today are taking back the name Lunaape (or Lenape). Its once-large territory has been reduced to a rump at Munsee-Delaware Nation — also known as Moraviantown — a reserve near London, Ont., with a population of about 200.

Like dozens of First Nations languages across the country, Lunaape is in danger of disappearing within a matter of years. Canada’s indigenous languages are in a state of crisis. Unless the knowledge is transferred to a new generation, dozens of traditional tongues will breathe their last.

Only a handful of indigenous languages — principally Inuktitut, Ojibway and various dialects of Cree — can be expected to survive without active intervention, according to linguistics experts.

There is no specific point at which a language officially becomes endangered. “The way that linguists usually look at it is to take into consideration the normal course of language transmission,” says John O’Meara, a linguist at Lakehead University who has studied Lunaape since 1979. “By that I mean languages are passed on from one generation to the next. If at some point that process of transmission is broken, then you can deduce that the language isn’t going to be spoken by younger people in the future.”

Lunaape is on the list of nearly extinct languages as “Munsee.” British Columbia figures prominently, as the home of Bella Coola (20 speakers left by last count in 2002), Haida (55), Kutenai (12), Sechelt (40) and seven others. The Yukon tongue of Tagish is a heartbeat away from vanishing: Lucy Wren, the last native speaker, is in her 90s and there is sparse interest from the community in reviving the language.”

Native languages have declined because of economic and social pressure to speak English and French. Language activists also blame assimilationist education policies; children sent to residential schools were often punished for speaking the languages they had learned at home.

“What happens, then, when you begin to devalue the languages?” asks Keren Rice, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, and director of its Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives. “People didn’t speak them to their children because they didn’t want their children to have the hard time that they had.”

Should a full language revival prove unworkable in some communities, experts like Prof. Poser suggest there are other ways of bringing about a linguistic comeback.

“We can certainly imagine a situation in which children learn native languages in school as written languages, together with much cultural information, just as European children not very long ago learned Latin, or as many Jews still learn Hebrew.”

For Ms. Noah, who spends a couple days each week rounding up most of what’s left of her community’s Lunaape speakers so she can practice the language, reviving Lunaape isn’t simply a matter of remembering vocabulary and syntax; it is a mission to restore traditional culture, and thus identity. Without it, she says, Moraviantown will continue to struggle with problems like drug addiction and high secondary school dropout rates.

“It’s not the social workers that’ll help, it’s the language. If you know your language, you know who you are,” she says.

Excerpted from: Adam McDowell, National Post, January 24, 2009.

Praise Song for the Day

Elizabeth AlexanderPraise Song for the Day
written and recited
by Elizabeth Alexander
at Obama’s inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Washington DC Mall

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama will be published as a commemorative book by Graywolf Press on Feb. 6. Alexander, who teaches at Yale University, read the poem immediately after Obama’s inaugural address Tuesday. The book will be titled “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.” Alexander is the fourth poet to compose a special poem for an inauguration, following Robert Frost, for John F. Kennedy, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, for Bill Clinton.