Thursday, January 31, 2013

There's Writing in these Woods

Our family’s three-generation ties with northern Ontario's Algoma District connect with a land baron from Michigan, Bill Weston, who likely acquired over 100,000 acres of prime Ontario timberland during the 1930s and 40s. Using his own bulldozers he saw to the cutting of access roads into the bush. At that time within easy recall of the pioneer era, private road-making on wild land easily earned regard as a kind of public works. With the 4,860-mile-long TransCanada Highway under construction, Mr. Weston believed the province or municipalities in all their capability should assume upkeep of his new roads. Ranting in the faces of public officials whom he sought out in their offices did not further his cause, so Weston, rumored to carry a two-bitted axe in his car, became his own road patrolman. A mighty figure with a booming voice, he would order hunters or hikers off whichever of his roads. Any repeat encounter was enhanced with the axe, which according to legend he could twirl overhead and hurl like a tomahawk, or with a loaded rifle. In such characters as this has a stereotype of American (especially United States rather than Canadian) male been upheld even into our era.

Offsetting his talent for confrontations, Bill Weston was credited with a great and talkative charm in business dealings and in hosting visitors at the rockbound point of land on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior where he and his wife Ellen had a several-room log cabin with outbuildings. The guests were especially drawn there by curiosity about Bill, Ellen and her sumptuous Sunday dinners of chicken, roast beef and wild game. Lounging time after dinner would have harkened back to so many camp and cave basking scenes, everyone stranded in place by a stomach-full of edible bounty, listening while Bill Weston reeled off his considerable bundle of hunting and lumbering yarns.

During World War II, demand grew for spruce and birch wood for use in military aircraft, notable examples the British de Havilland Mosquito and the Hawker Hurricane. Birch plywood was used in the Mosquito, one of the fastest-flying, most utilized planes of the British Royal Air Force. Spruce spars and ribs were particularly wanted for training aircraft, with at least fourteen Canadian manufacturers such as Montreal’s Canadian Car and Foundry Company, MacDonald Brothers Aircraft Company in Winnipeg, Fleet Aircraft of Fort Erie, Ontario and U.S. factories in at least seventeen states. Weston set to work in the all-too-typical manner of a tycoon who stands to make great wealth off a resource whether lumber or mineral. He stripped sections of his forest of their trees, never tolerating any worker who stood up to him to challenge his methods or his limits. He became a millionaire.

A small amount of archived correspondence with Abitibi Power and Paper Ltd. from the early 1950s shows William J. Weston and Son doing business in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario from a post office box. A return address for William Weston is a room at the Windsor Hotel in the Sault. Pulpwood by this time is the topic, especially spruce and balsam fir, in a Truck Purchase Agreement, indicating a truckload of logs, from 1951. One letter dated March 1954 show the public, take-charge aspect of Bill Weston as he expresses his concern for a number of unemployed men near Lake Superior’s Batchawana Bay, whose yield of cut logs lies stacked along the Pancake River. The response from Abitibi expressed regret that Weston’s letter hadn’t come two or three months earlier, explaining that the company is already in danger of exceeding its assignment to local timber cutters. This exchange would seem to presage the Westons’ subsequent sell-off of lands exhausted of any wood product.

Celebratory living that included trips to Florida at the height of the tourist season along with the war’s end had cut severely into his wealth by the 1950s and 60s. He was driven into selling off parcels of land at hardly more than $15 an acre. Notorious fits of temper increased as his fortune, influence and bodily strength eroded. Weston’s son in his twenties was reportedly found murdered by a bullet from the rear out on the land. Rumors divided the blame between offended Weston and Son employees and Bill Weston himself.

I remember the Weston cabin in the mid-1970s. It lay about five kilometers from Pancake Bay, Ontario, log walls painted a golden-sand color, the boarded-up window frames cherry-red. An iron dinner bell stood on a post near the lake-facing entrance above decorous, rock-bordered pathways. The yard was a meadow of daisies, fireweed and the escaped carnation that Ellen Weston called Sweet Williams. I even found a pink form of turtlehead there, a member of the figwort plant family native to the southern United States—did Ellen or Bill transplant it out of delight with the reptile face the flower presents?

From this cabin Bill Weston wandered forth on a night of lashing rain, thunder, and gale-driven surf, per legend. He may have been sleep-walking or visiting the privy, but one of his slippers was found far along the twisting, one-lane Weston Road. He had forced his way between soggy evergreen boughs, over logs and onto lakeside cliffs, where searchers found his body in remnants of pajamas by daylight, not balled up in hypothermia but stretched out with a reaching arm, posed like a fallen tyrant or hero depending on point of view.

From Michigan Ellen Weston had written a kindly response to my parents, uncle and aunt when, in about 1969, they mailed her an inquiry about selling her land to them, explaining that too many years of happy memories tied her to the place forever so she could never bring herself to sell it. The following year my elders purchased thirteen acres further along Weston Road from a subsequent U.S.-based landowner who had given in to Bill Weston’s charms in a prior year, buying those acres of regenerated spruce, fir, cedar, maple and yellow birch for a late-life retreat against his wife’s wishes.

A photo of Bill and Ellen Weston, the caption dating it from about 1957, is tucked in a recent directory of Weston Road landowners. Bill appears massive in the trunk and the hands, one arm tucked around Ellen, his demeanor potentially affable, potentially a little testy. Ellen in her period-looking floral print dress and pearl earrings looks pleased and pert. I tend to suspect that the scrap of bygone legend about Ellen in later years sleeping with a butcher knife under her pillow for protection against Bill is hype or an exaggeration based on gossip about Mr. Weston’s observable decline. 

In fall 2009 the meadowy former Weston yard bristled with pathless forest. Cabin and sheds had been burned by the subsequent landowner or moved off for other use. The stone foundation of a forgotten pumphouse could be stumbled upon under cover of salmonberry shoots. I traced our way back to Weston Road via a lingering colonnade of balsam firs that used to line the driveway since the driveway itself, along with its wooden gate, had vanished. Given space, nutrients and adequate moisture, the forest still re-stakes itself inside of one human generation, a new tree generation over-writing the marks of times before. When buildings fall and the chunks are swallowed by decay it's up to us to remember the best and worst about who led us to those places or tutored us in local custom.

Here were some lines of a poem about the dead that I wrote in memory of my dad, Werner W. Beyer, who found that ragged region of entangled cedars and regenerating spruce, fir and birch and enabled our childhood and legacy there:  

"but where--but anywhere?--do they still occupy, entire? 
Isn't it true that some we thought dispersed repair, re-focus 
for some use, but mostly scatter, taught in their extreme fragility
to shun the thrashing embattlement of limbs, the opportunism
of rootlets forcing their whims in thrall to self?
And so our call, our merest sibilance of leaves: this hypnotic forest..."


The excerpt is from a longer poem titled 'Graduation' and is included in the above card whose photo was shot in October along Weston's old road, now deep in forest belonging mainly to private owners. Research and consultation surrounding this present writing clued me in that in the heyday of his lumbering operation a lot of the Pancake Bay region may have been stumps rotting in vast clearings. What we encountered in the late 1960s and early 70s was, unbeknownst to us three awed kids at least, second-growth given the absence of giant pines which signify primeval forest in the boreal region including the Lake Superior north shore. The largest pines, found when I was young near cliffs along that lake shore, may I suppose be hold-overs from the 1930s, too hemmed-in by rock then to get at or too small, and left to clothe the coastline in their maturity.


Enjoying childhood and adulthood year after year in the same area, I've continued to make paintings either of emblematic plants and shoreline scenery without compare in my own memory, or of astounding birds that I'd never been privileged to see till I became the owner of a spotting scope and then only in certain seasons. Examples are the harebell above or the long-tailed ducks, watercolors sold as originals and on cards.

Every era and every career within it is a part of succession, the usually-orderly replacement of generation by generation, or soil layer by soil layer, where, in the words of my own poem 'God Surfaces and Bares Rejoinders:'       There's writing in these woods
since we tore up the moss that hoods it.
Some corresponds to other writing
just come to light on rock, in camp, while
some, a jot, is left without reply
apparent anywhere.

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