by Patricia Grinsteed
I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree who may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair;
Upon who bosom snow has lain; who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.
Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)
This poem was set to music by a composer unknown to me, and was recorded by Nelson Eddy. Mother in my childhood memory of 1935 loved it, for he was one of her favorite singers and consequently became one of mine as well. The melody matches the quality and intent of the poem, accentuating the haunting measure. When I listen to the copy of this old recording today I still get goose bumps. For the addition of his remarkable voice, the clarity, his special tone, perfect diction, you can feel his personal attachment to this special song which brings my mother back to me instantly, together with her loving influences.
We were very poor, I was the youngest of twelve children. Nine of us survived to adulthood. In my childlike memories, we lived in a treeless community, in a dark house, with grey brick walls, cobblestone streets, backyards and alleyways. We lived in wooden row housing in the docklands of east London built in the 19th century for the mass migration of workers enticed from their agricultural societies. They were lured with promises of a better life in the Big Cities working to expand the industrial revolution. We were rich with love within the framework of our extended families, as they coped with the First World War, then the Depression and into the advent of the Second World War. Both parents had strong innate principles in living, teaching truth, loyalty, trust, compassion and understanding of each other. All of which are tools for survival, and we knew it.
I had just turned 11 years old in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. Mother obeyed the government call to send all the children out of London as a means to save them from whatever was to come. So, in June 1940 she took me by the hand to catch the bus. Carrying one change of clothing, a snack of some sort, three pennies to spend, and the regulation gas mask. We then boarded a train to a “destination unknown”. On that 12 hours train ride I felt my childhood was over. In contemplation, most men who served in a military capacity during the war are reluctant to speak about their experiences. Most children who were official evacuees out of London do not care to speak of the consequences of their experiences either. Although I was lucky and well cared for by the people who took me in, acute homesickness eventually engulfed me by the time I was 13. Mother, of course, had kept in touch. My parents and I were reunited in 1942/3, to find the family socio-structure I had left behind was completely fractured, never to be together as a whole unit again. Such is the price of war.
After all these years the best parts of being evacuated to the lovely countryside in the southern county of Devon has surfaced. I recall walking in the forests abundant with primroses, violets, bluebells, where we were free to pick and take home in a bunch to cheer us up. Likewise picking up edible walnuts or chestnuts when in season, as delicacies to eat and supplement our very meagre and restricted weekly food rations. We also had trips to Dartmoor to pick whortleberries, a type of blueberry. Breathing in the clean air was also a blessing, which cleared up my London childhood smog/fog asthmatic lung condition. These were difficult years for everyone. I now cherish the memory of this beautiful connection to Nature.
In the post-war years there was an invited exodus of people emigrating from Europe to Canada, which was very short of skilled labour. My husband and I joined them in April 1956, arriving by boat on the S.S. Ivernia. We were the second ship to enter and open up the shipping season for the St. Lawrence Seaway to commercial traffic that year. Arriving in Montreal, we quickly caught the Express Boat train to Toronto. While on that train I was enthralled by this big Land of Trees, mesmerised by the forests for miles and miles on each side of the track. We rode non-stop for 6 hours barely noticing the hamlets, towns, cities, we sped by at such a high speed. For me, these trees were an awakening to the new world.
Our children were born in ‘61, ’62 and ‘64, and on account of that I became a Canadian citizen in 1966. I was a feminist in 1968, when feminism was the dirty “F” word, with a high level of hostility attached to it. So, with other women I began organising protest rallies for social justice and change in Ontario. All our issues were directly connected to Human Rights.
The environment as an issue was not yet front-page news. From 1973-75 I was a church Board Member for our Summer Camp Children and Adults Programs held in 50 acres of pristine surroundings in the Cambrian Shield area of Southern Ontario. In these circumstances I came face to face with Nature in all her glory and seasons. The pond was naturally fed and cleansed by underground streams. We could drink the above ground spring water. On the adjacent property they had their own private waterfall and gave us permission to walk through the forest and enjoy the falls, provided we were respectful and caring to the environment. This whole experience for me was a good lesson in stewardship. It remains a beautiful memory and a highlight of my life.
Our youngest daughter, with husband, son aged 4 and baby girl aged 1, moved from Ontario to Kelowna, B.C. in 1991, and we followed in 1993. By this time my best friend, the song writer Carolyn McDade, was focusing on the environment and composing songs relating to Nature in a spiritual way. We were, and still are, members of a Sacred Web of Women Singers, singing together at women’s gatherings, and on her recordings, as inspired by her words and beautiful music.
I discovered Raging Grannies while attending a convention in Vancouver 1998, and went home from that event determined the timing was right to start up a gaggle in the City of Kelowna with a successful result. Way back then, we were singing protest songs against Monsanto engineering our food chain, so concern for the environment was appearing in one form or the other. Personally I enjoyed both groups, singing the caring songs written by Carolyn, and acting out live on the streets and wherever, the political messages in the songs written by Raging Grannies. It was a very good time for me all round.
After my husband’s death, I moved alone first to Victoria, and then finally catching up with my daughter and grandchildren living in North Vancouver 2006 where I still reside. At the first Vancouver Forum 2009 entitled “Elders and the Environment” sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation, Raging Grannies had been invited to appear. David Suzuki opened the conference, and we sang after he had spoken. I stayed on to attend the workshops and experienced another transformation by going home aware that I was a potential Suzuki Elder.
I officially became a member of the Association of Suzuki Elders 17th March 2010. This is a dedication I will take to the end of my life in a most beautiful and appropriate way, a path of continual learning with people, both men and women I respect and admire. In our work together inspirations come from many directions. Collectively we support David Suzuki and the Foundation.
My opinion is that “R” for radical is the dirtiest word of our day and time. It too, brings out a lot of hostility. I enjoy being a Radical for it is who I am. Being called a Radical Environmentalist is the icing on the cake for me.