Rural Palimpsests; Or, the Changing Rural Landscape

February 3, 2012 § 9 Comments

Drawing of the Old Hawley Town Commons

About 18 months ago, I wrote this piece about the old Town Commons in Hawley, Massachusetts. I was struck by the history of what could no longer be seen in Hawley at the Town Commons where, in the mid-19th century, there was a vibrant townsite.  Hawley also stirred up my own memories of having lived in a ghost town as a teenager, on the old town site of Ioco, British Columbia, now a part of Port Moody, BC.  But Ioco, which will eventually become condos, I’m sure, was a (sub)urban townsite.  Hawley is a town a few miles west of the Middle of Nowhere.

In urban centres, we see the ruins of past civilisations all around us, whether they are palimpsests of old advertisements on the sides of buildings, or the ruins of buildings, still dotting the landscape.  Indeed, I wrote my doctoral dissertation and a book on a neighbourhood that was, at least when I started writing, a ruin: Griffintown, Montréal.  A decade ago, the landscape of Griffintown was an urban ruin, the foundations of the old Irish-Catholic Church, St. Ann’s, poking through the grass of Parc St. Ann/Griffintown; the rectory of the French Catholic Church, Ste-Hélène still stands, but the church is long gone, just a few corner stones and the remains of an iron fence are left.  But this is a city, and cities, we are constantly reminded by scholars, poets, novelists, film-makers, etc., are living organisms, built to be rebuilt, constantly evolving and changing. By definition, then, the rural landscape is unchanging and constant.

Don’t believe me? Spend a bit of time reading literature set in the countryside.  Or watch movies. Read poems.  The landscape of the country side is eternal and unchanging.  Entire nations have been built on the mythology of the countryside (I’m looking at you, Ireland!).  Here in Québec, Maria Chapdelaine, a major novel of the early 20th century nationalist school explicitly tied the virtue of the nation to the land. The anti-modernists of a century ago celebrated the unchanging “natural” landscape of the countryside as a tonic for the frayed nerves of modern man.  In Canada, the Group of Seven built their entire careers/legends on representing Ontario’s mid-North back to us as the nation.  Watch a Molson Canadian ad these days, and you’ll learn that Canada has more square miles of “awesomeness” than any other country on Earth.  And all that awesomeness is somewhere in the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. But the rural landscape DOES change and evolve, as the Old Hawley Town Commons will tell you.

This is where Robert Corrigan was fatally beaten on 17 October 1855

This was brought all the closer to me in late November, when I travelled out to Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, which is located about 70km south of Québec City, in the Appalachian foothills.  I was there because a long time ago, I wrote my MA thesis on the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Saint-Sylvestre on 17 October 1855 when Robert Corrigan, an Irish-Protestant bully, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours.  The mid-1850s saw the height of sectarianism in Canada and a murder case involving the two groups of Irish proved to be too much for many Anglo-Protestant Canadians to take and a national crisis broke out.  By the time the Affair was over in 1858, not only had Corrigan’s murderers been acquitted of all charges, the McNab-Taché coalition government had fallen. All these years later, I had it in my mind that it was time to do something with the Corrigan Affair.  I had done my best to avoid it after I finished my MA, I did attempt to write an academic article, but it seemed to me to be too good a story to be wasted in a journal article that no one would ever read.  So I have decided to write a book that no one will ever read, but at least a book is a physical thing, something to offer tribute to this rather amazing story that erupted onto the front pages of newspapers across British North America from a rural backwater. So it was out to Saint-Sylvestre to meet Steve Cameron, a local man who has a deep interest in the Corrigan Affair and the history of the Saint-Sylvestre region in general.

Corrigan's homestead, Saint-Sylvestre, Québec

Hugh Russell's farm

Steve offered to give me the grand tour of the landscape, where the Corrigan Affair took place.  I don’t really know what I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect what I saw: the entire landscape of Saint-Sylvestre and the landscape of the Corrigan Affair is gone, completely changed in the 155 years since Corrigan’s death. He was beaten on the county fair grounds; the site where he was beaten is completely non-descript today, just a corner of a farmer’s field.  Corrigan’s homestead is covered with scrub and a random cross someone threw up sometime in the past century.  Where the farm of Corrigan’s friend, Hugh Russell was once located there is nothing but high tension electrical wires, forest, and a dirt road passing by in front.  There is no evidence of human habitation ever having stood there.  Where the Protestants had their burial ground here in the backwoods of Saint-Sylvestre/Saint-Gilles, there is nothing left but a stone wall, though the grave yard has been carefully and lovingly restored by Steve’s organisation, Coirneal Cealteach.

Old Anglican grave yard in the backwoods of Saint-Sylvestre

In short, the rural landscape is just as dynamic of that of the city. In Saint-Sylvestre, the mostly Irish-Catholic farmers were settled on poor farming land in a harsh and unforgiving landscape; their descendants left.  And in their stead, nature reclaimed its place. When I first began studying Griffintown a decade ago, Talking Heads’ song “Nothing But Flowers” kept creeping into my head as I pondered the ruins of the churches, the trees growing in vacant lots and the vegetation in the cracks of the concrete.  But “Nothing But Flowers” applies just as much to Hawley or Saint-Sylvestre or countless other rural landscapes once settled by humans who have long since moved on.

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§ 9 Responses to Rural Palimpsests; Or, the Changing Rural Landscape

  • Geneviève says:

    Nowhere have I felt that exact sentiment more strongly than right here in the town where I live. I’ve studied it historically and know that indigenous populations used the area as hunting grounds, but as far as I can tell, never settled it. During the French regime it was mostly forgotten and during the early English regime was quickly de-forested and built up as farmland. Following the abolition of the seigneurial system and the migration of the young to Montreal’s factories, much of the land returned to open meadow and remained that way until the slow-to-start but quick-to-pick-up speed of suburban development.

    I stand on a spot anywhere in town and close my eyes and imagine myself existing across the ages and seeing how the landscape has changed over the millennia. Wouldn’t it be amazing to stand there and see time move fast-forward all around you?

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Yeah, I get that feeling, perhaps not as explicitly, though once I was standing on Malin Head, the furthest northern point of Ireland, this totally windswept, barren cliffland pasture, the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred feet down and only a couple of sheep around, along with some ruins of what was probably a farm or something like that once in the 19th century. The desolateness, the strength of the wind, the cold air, all of the sudden I got the terror of the Irish, and everyone else with the invasions of the Vikings a millennium earlier. But, in this case, I don’t think the landscape had changed much in the time in between.

    As a scholar, though, I wonder if this is something that historians and landscape geographers have really thought too much about. I know there is a tendency in environmental history to look at how land has been used, but I’ve not seen much that looks at how land is reclaimed from human activity in a rural setting. For that matter, I don’t think much has been done on the urban setting, I know I found exactly nothing on the subject when I first began to ponder the ruined landscape of Griffintown a decade ago.

    I don’t know if it would be possible to do a landscape analysis or biography of a parish/township or something to trace the changes I saw in, say, Saint-Sylvestre or Hadley, but it is something to think about.

    • I think such a study would be difficult to address. Certainly for the North American landscape a lack of documentation (surveys, artist renderings and the like) are limited to the last couple of hundred years so we can’t get a good visual. Oral histories can help at least define a space as settled or not.

      I like the idea of exploring how the wilderness takes back abandoned towns. Food for thought.

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Yes and no, really. From my experience, there are still oral traditions in aboriginal cultures that identify land use methods dating back at least 300-400 years, from hunting spots to bathing/swimming spots, settlement locations, crop-growing sites. So an environmental history of a specific location could, in theory, go back a few hundred years using a mixture of anthropology, ethnography, and historical methods, but then we could use the archaeological record as well. Not that this would be easy, mind, but there is a methodological means of doing an environmental history of place.

    As for the reclaiming of abandoned places, there is the location of Phoenix, BC. I will post about this shortly.

  • […] in the vein of the Hawley Town Commons in Western Massachusetts and the changing rural landscape of Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, I present now to you the ghost town of Phoenix, British Columbia.  Phoenix is located in the […]

  • […] in the vein of the Hawley Town Commons in Western Massachusetts and the changing rural landscape of Saint-Sylvestre, Québec, I present now to you the ghost town of Phoenix, British Columbia.  Phoenix is located in the […]

  • […] changing rural landscape in North America (Hawley, Massachusetts, Phoenix, British Columbia, and Sainte-Sylvestre, Québec), but in talking with Sam I began to think about the costs of deindustrialisation in North […]

  • Lynn Ayres says:

    Well Matthew, is that book written yet re the Corrigan affair? I would love to read it. My connection is that I descend from Bart Kelly, bro of Richard and John. I’m fascinated by this topic.

    • Seriously? That’s wild! Unfortunately, the Corrigan Affair has been put on the back burner for me. However, I know a guy in Saint-Sylvestre, Steve Cameron, who is working on something on the Corrigan Affair, I’m sure he’d love to talk to you! He’s done a lot of work tracking down the stars of the Corrigan Affair, he’s followed Richard Kelly as far as Michigan, where I think he died.

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