Tag Archive: water

the new world

passenger ship

Photo Credit: Unknown; Licence: Public Domain

I was on an ancestry kick several months ago.  Ancestral research is a difficult process made infinitely easier by services such as ancestry.com, which permitted me to research my family history in my pajamas.  And if that isn’t the very definition of progress, I don’t know what is.  I was also helped along by my poor grandmother, who did all of her family research before the advent of online ancestry databases.  Without her immense initial effort, I never would have gotten anywhere.

For some, researching family history has been simple.  In one line on my father’s side of the family, I’ve gotten as far back to the 17th century with nary a bead of sweat on my brow.  My grandmother’s paternal line, on the other hand, has been a thorny maze fraught with dead ends.  Her father seemed to have a penchant for adventure (read: trouble).  He changed his name, and his life before moving from England to Canada is shrouded in mystery.

After a month of solid research, during which I spent almost every waking second not otherwise absorbed by obligation poring through records, I finally had to shut it all down.  I am highly obsessive.  Faced with a problem, I’ll skip meals and sleep in an effort to reach an answer.  I was very literally exhausted.

But the process was not without reward.  The beauty of ancestral research is not only that it tells you something about yourself, but it also gives you a glimpse of history in a personal way.  Though I am cognizant of the class system in England, both now and — more prominently — in the 19th century and earlier, seeing that my ancestors were lower-class labourers opened my eyes to how fortunate I am to live where and when I do.

Today, I am thankful for living in a society that ascribes greater value to determination and ability than it does to birth.

My parents and I have all had the benefit of a university education.  If you told my great-great-grandfather, who was a coachman and domestic servant, that his great-grandson (my father) would be a university-graduated accountant, he would have laughed.  There was virtually no opportunity in his day for anyone to rise above the limitations of their birth.

How incandescent my ancestors must have felt, travelling by ship across the dark waters of the North Atlantic.  Crammed into third class accommodations, the journey must have seemed endless, but on the other side of that horizon stood a new world, laden with possibility.

freedom extended

Mid-June, I put away Hugo’s Les Miserables in favour of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Hugo was too heavy for the sultry summer weather, and I desired literature that had been aired out a little.

Both of the two Twain novels are light-hearted, enjoyable reads, but Huck Finn’s saga has an underbelly of racial commentary.  There are a few points in the novel which stand out in this manner, but there is a short section in Chapter 16 which I feel is almost the crux of the story.  In it, Huck Finn and his runaway slave companion, Jim, are travelling down the Mississippi, looking for Cairo.  Cairo is positioned at a crossroads between freedom and enslavement: continue further down the Mississippi and travel deeper into the south, or travel up the Ohio river and reach the northern states where slavery is abolished.

Huck begins to have a crisis of conscience (please excuse the use of derogatory language below, but I am quoting and, really, considering the point I am making, it would be idiotic to censor):

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t cell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.”  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but shake my head.  Of course, I have a decent grasp of history and the treatment of slaves. I understood, too, that slaves were truly objectified, and stealing a person’s slave or helping that slave escape was perceived as no different than stealing their farm animals or their jewels.  It still astounded me, though, to hear stated in such bald terms that a greater crisis of conscience might arise from the idea of a man taking back his children and wife from the person who “owns” them, than does arise from the idea of the person “owning” them in the first place.

Later in the book, Jim talks about how he misses his family, and Huck simply cannot understand it, even though he would think nothing of a White person missing his or her family.  To Huck, it must seem as crazy as a table getting emotional about the absence of other tables: he simply cannot see Jim as a human being with feelings and yearnings.

Twain, of course, lived and wrote in the time when all of this was a reality so, even though it is fiction, he is a satisfactory and reliable commentator: this is what people believed.

Huckleberry Finn: Jim on the Raft

Illustration Credit: E. W. Kemble (original book illustration); Licence: Public Domain

The idea of having no free will and no personal choice; of being owned, and having my destiny determined, by another; of knowing that fulfilling a natural desire for companionship and offspring would simply enslave another person at the profit of another; of being separated from the people I love and not being able to bridge that gap; to say nothing of the abuse suffered by slaves…. the idea of it all is simply too disturbing to consider.

Slavery is truly one of the most disgusting blights on the history of humanity.

A few days ago, I spoke about my gratitude for freedom, but I felt that this example of freedom deserved special attention.  Today, I am thankful not only for my freedom, but for the heroes of history who went against the grain and fought against slavery, and fought for civil rights.


I can’t pass by a sunset without wanting to snap a photograph. I’ve never seen a picture of a sunset that has done a real sunset any justice. No photograph ever captures the complexity of colour, the sheer beauty, the eerie silhouetting of the landscape, the rays of light that push through the clouds as if the gates of another world have opened, the illumination of the endless sky in hues of gold, purple, pink, and peach.  Sunsets are the picture of eternity.  If I ever lose my sight, sunsets will be the first thing I will miss.


Photo Credit: Krishna; Licence: Public Domain

Today, I am thankful that I have sight.  Even though those born without it derive pleasure from the world in other ways, and those who lose it later in life learn to do so, I can’t imagine my life without the gift of sight.

I don’t want to focus on loss of sight as a disability.  I had a blind acquaintence in university who volunteered helping new students who were blind learn their way around the university.  He played electric guitar and he took a bus to Toronto a few times each week to work for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.  There is a blind man in my neighbourhood who walks simply everywhere, always with a broad and warm smile on his face. Disabled these people are not. Maybe they can’t get in the driver’s seat of a car, but there is plenty they can do.

But I’m too much in love with the world I see to give up sight of it.  Call it an appreciation, an obsession, an addiction — whatever you want to call it, I’m grateful.


Last week, we were camping in Algonquin Park, part of a vacation we take each year at the beginning of August.  Nestled in a transition zone between the rugged landscape characteristic of northern Ontario, and the more plateaued and agricultural south, it is an ideal spot to see many different ecosystems up close, working together in picturesque harmony (as nature has a knack for doing).

Algonquin Provincial Park

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

The park is known for its wealth of interpretive programs which educate visitors about the diversity of organisms that inhabit the area.  Zachary is a bit too young for some of it, but I love watching Gregory lap up the information, ask questions, learn.  One year, he developed a fascination for fungi.  While on trails, we had to stop every time we came upon a mushroom to look it up in our field guide.  Hikes took twice as long as usual, but I was delighted to see him take such an interest.

For me, the draw of Algonquin is in the opportunity to break away from the bustle and noise of populous cities and be in a place where the loudest sound one typically hears is the eerie howl of wolves in the moonlight, or the haunting, mournful call of a loon.  Within minutes of entering the park, I can feel tension disappear from my neck and shoulders, and my heart beats a little bit more slowly.

Alongside hikes, our favourite activity while visiting Algonquin is canoeing out into the rustic interior, a section of the park unsullied by vehicles or nearly any other vestige of civilization.  Time stops, the air is fragrant, and there is almost nothing to see but the illimitable wilderness before us.

Later, by night, far away from the light pollution of cities, the stars of the Algonquin sky are innumerable.

Today, I am thankful for nature, and for the sheer vastness of untouched wilderness in this spacious continent on which I live.

What is your experience of nature?  Share it with me in the comments.


Every year, our family spends a few days at Niagara Falls. The gaudy lights, obnoxious noises, and tourist hoards are anathema, but the wide-eyed expressions on my children’s faces are sufficient motivation for me to swallow my distaste, and viewing the majesty of the Falls makes up for all of it.

Niagara Falls

Photograph of Niagara Falls, 2003

No matter how many times I visit, I am always made breathless by the sheer volume of water plummeting over the falls. It’s unfathomable that Lake Erie hasn’t drained completely.  I am blessed to live in a continent with a substantial bounty of fresh, potable water available for drinking, cooking, bathing, cooling off, washing our cars, sprinklering the grass, watering the vegetable and flowers gardens, washing away the things we don’t want. What isn’t visible above ground is hidden below. I turn on my bathroom faucet and water just pours out like magic. Who gives a second thought to running through the sprinkler or going to the water park to cool off in the hot days of summer?  Who questions filling a backyard pool?  Not one of us gives it a second thought until… the plumbing breaks down, or our water source becomes contaminated, or the municipality issues a water advisory saying we can’t use water the way we are used to using (and maybe abusing) it. Then, for a moment, we stop taking it for granted, but gripe about the inconvenience of its absence.

This blog is not about me climbing up to a pulpit and preaching. I would have no right to do that in any case because I, too, take water for granted. But, today, I am thankful for water, for the abundance of it, the easy availability of it, the deliciousness of it.  Water truly sustains life.

There is a dusty village in Africa where villagers go to the community well to draw buckets of water for basic survival, then carry them home, burdened by the weight.  That well is only available because a missionary group raised money to have it built. This little girl — I’ll name her Arjana — gives water to the few animals her family owns because the chicken needs it to lay the eggs the girl’s family will trade for cabbage or beans or some fabric to make clothes. And, maybe, if there is some water left over, the girl and her family will get a taste.  This village isn’t just one village, but a multitude of villages scattered throughout the world.

The Bible describes the agricultural abundance of Israel by saying that it is a land flowing with milk and honey.  The phrase has come to be associated with paradise, and I am always left with an image of milk and honey filling river beds up to the banks and flowing without end. I am satisfied (and gratified) to live in a land flowing with… water. That is paradise enough for me.

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