Sunday, July 7, 2019

Bears, Books, and Brooches: A Childhood in the Wild Woods

I'm going to take you on a little tour. This is a tour through the meanderings of my endlessly hungry, endlessly restless brain. It's the kind of brain that makes unexpected connections between things, connections that other people often think are random, or far-fetched but, to me, make perfect sense. 

They really do make sense! You just have to look at them the way I do. I'll show you what I mean by bringing you with me on the journey my brain takes as it ponders this dress. Come with me as I visit the Empress of Russia, Grizzly Bears, clear cut forests, Victorian brooches, and so much more!

You'll see: It all makes sense. It really does.

And, like life, some of it is happy, and some of it is sad.

Dress: LindyBop; Shoes: Cobb Hill; Sweater, and green brooch: vintage; Agate brooch: antique
First of all, I love this dress. I get compliments from strangers every time I wear it. It doesn't look wildly out of place in 2019, but I think it would also fit in very well in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

See? With a few minor changes, these women would fit in today, wouldn't they? But, then again, maybe that's because 1930s style dresses are making a bit of a comeback these days.
An Old Navy dress with a strong influence from the late 30s and early 40s

Another retro, Old Navy offering
And see? These two women could walk straight into 1940 and look fairly natural.

It's no surprise that figure flattering ...

... easy to wear styles keep returning over the decades. Isn't that the perfect dress? Pretty and comfortable? Why not bring them back?

I also love the breezy, feminine flow of the skirt. Is it weird to say that it makes me feel like I'm one with nature?

It might have a little something to do with this crazy, bucolic, novelty print! Seriously fun.

It makes you think of Bambi, right? Me too. 

A friend of mine wondered aloud why a fawn would have ... another fawn for a mother, and I've wondered that ever since.

Me, at about 10, in a wild game park somewhere in the States
I've had a lot of experience with wildlife, but not very much experience with deer, so, when I started writing this post, I did a little research.

And look! There is a deer that remains spotted into adulthood. Guess what it's called. 

You got it! It's called the Spotted Deer. Okay, it's also called the Chital, but whatever. Anyway, it's native to India, which is probably why I'd never heard of it.

At least now I can say that I'm not wearing a depiction of a mother doe too young to be a mother. I doubt the trees and mountains are in keeping with the Spotted Deer's natural terrain, but let's not quibble. 

The next thing I wanted to know was if stags hang out with fawns ...

... a la Bambi. I thought they didn't ... 

... but they do! 

Well that's a relief! Otherwise, the print would just be goofy. 

From Sheep and Squirrels and Kitties! On the Curative Powers of Cuteness
And I never wear goofy prints. This one, for instance, with the sheep floating randomly on zigzags? Not goofy.

Most of all, above all else, this dress reminds me of Marie Hall Ets' charming children's book, Come Play with Me, which was a favourite when I was a child. 

You can see the similarities, right? The book was very much on my mind as I chose our locations for this shoot, and then posed for it. I hope it shows.

Of course, given the kind of brain I have, I also notice problems with the book, and the ways that it differs from my own life. For instance, I can remember very few children's books in which the girls had dark or even curly hair. Usually, they were blond ...

... unlike me ...

Me, almost three, with my cousin, who was about four.
... ever.

And of course, as in most children's books about animals, inexplicably, all the animals are male ...

Litter mates, Ketsl and Chuti, all grown up
... unlike in real life, obviously! These two, my two, are a boy and a girl. Imagine that.

The first time I ran away from home, I was about three, so I didn't get very far, and, being in rural Massachusetts, not yet in rural British Columbia, I found another house quite quickly. This little girl's romp reminds me of the terrain into which I first ran away, all those years ago.

But, I kept running into the woods once I was in British Columbia. I didn't so much run away anymore (because I knew I could not survive), as I did run into the forest to find solace, quiet, and distance from my abusers, and from the other children who violently bullied me so badly in school. 

In grade seven, my junior high school was on the side of a mountain, slightly out of town, and surrounded by forest. It wasn't hard to sneak off the grounds at lunch and go for walks on the dirt roads I would sometimes stumble upon. I even found a little cave and would hide in it, just to get away.

I remember once, in the dead of winter, I saw pheasants.

But make no mistake, these forests were no joke.

I was less likely to run into bunnies ...

... than I was to run into bears. They were common, not just in the woods, but right in town too. I remember walking along the railroad tracks with my friend once, when an RCMP officer came up to us and told us we should probably walk along the road instead, because someone had spotted a Black Bear on the tracks.

I remember looking at him quizzically. Both we and the officer felt that this was an awful lot of fuss about nothing. After all, it was just a Black Bear, not a Grizzly, so what was the big deal? But we complied. The road was only about 50 feet from the tracks anyway.

Spirit Bear litter mates
(By the way, west coast, British Columbia's famous Spirit Bears, or Kermode Bears, are Black Bears. A genetic mutation runs through their particular population, causing between 10% and 20% of them to be born white. They are very special to us.)

Everyone knew that the Black Bears could be counted upon to come into town once a week, on garbage night. 

And if you went to the town dump? Well, we knew they'd be there too. It was no big deal.

Every child had been taught all about bears. Black bears weren't so very bad, as long as you kept your distance and stayed calm. Well, usually they weren't so very bad, except in the spring, when they were really hungry, and except when you got in between a mother and her cubs, which you could do completely by accident. Except for those times. 

Kokanee Glacier Park
If you went hiking, you hung a bear bell off your backpack, to scare the bears away - if you wanted to waste your money. Most people just hung their tin cups off their packs; the clanging noise was just as good as a bell, and it was cheaper. 

Then, at night, you always always had to tie your food way up in a tree. If you kept it in your tent, even Black Bears would rip your tent - and maybe you - to shreds to get at that food.

My smother often took me hiking and tenting up in Kokanee Glacier Park. This was no casual glamping. This was the real deal, and it could be dangerous. Like most provincial parks, Kokanee Glacier had a little bulletin board, and sign-in book right near the very remote, dirt and gravel, parking lot. It was vital to sign in here, and to say when you expected to be back. If you didn't sign out when you said you would, the park rangers would come looking for you - or your body. No joke. Our prime-minister's brother, Michel Trudeau, died in an avalanche in the Kokanee Glacier Park in 1998.

It was also vital to read the updates on this bulletin board, for they included notice of bear sightings. Were they Black Bears, berry-fattened and happy? Go ahead! Have fun. Was there a Black Bear mama up there with her cubs? Be careful, but go on up. 

But Grizzlies? Grizzlies were different, my friend. 

Here are the things were taught to do if confronted by any bear, including a Grizzly.

Don't run. They will chase you. Stay still, and calm. And, above all, don't be afraid. Bears can smell fear.

No problem.

The thing is, this really is how I'd react when I saw a bear, even if it was close to me. I was calm and unafraid. Except, I must have been a little afraid sometimes. I remember seeing a Black Bear in a field of sheep once, and all I can really remember is its huge, shining, sharp claws.

Me, 8 years old, in the Kootenays
If remaining calm didn't work, and the bear looked ready to attack, make yourself as big as you can and make lots of noise. If you look big, you might scare it away.

A (tame) Grizzly beside a large man
Yeah, right.

I still can't look big. I sure as hell couldn't then!

Mostly, we were supposed to stay the hell away from Grizzlies. If you were in an area where there'd been a Grizzly sighting, you were to turn around and go home. If a Grizzly had been spotted with her cubs? Turn around and go home now

Kokanee Glacier Park
Unless, of course, you were my smother. I was maybe 10, maybe younger, when she took me up here when there'd been a recent sighting of a Grizzly and her two cubs. She decided we should keep hiking anyway. She chose to pitch our tent just ahead of these hikers, exactly where the Grizzly and her cubs had least been seen.

Rules did not apply to my smother. Ever.

The next morning, we were on the trail on the left  of the lake, when we spotted the Grizzly and both her cubs on the bank on the right. Smother stopped, pointed them out, got out the binoculars, got me to look too... then kept us hiking to the other side of the lake, a short sprint for a Grizzly. She did not turn around and take us home.

My smother never cared about her children's safety. That's why I'm disabled

Kokanee Glacier Park
Another time, when I was 8, and my brother was 16, she took us even further up into the park, past all trails, over a rocky, mountain pass, right to the top. 

She brought a bag of pot brownies, and shared them with my brother - and me. She gave me one. I liked the chocolate, so I wanted more. Having decided the pot wasn't very strong, my smother let me have seven more brownies in a row! 

Naturally, I hallucinated. Naturally, I was violently ill. But we did not head for home which, by now, was a two day hike away. No, we up there.

My smother never cared much about her children's safety. She actively put us in danger all the time. I often marvel that I survived my childhood at all.

Oh, and also: cougars.

So, yeah, my natural world in childhood was often not quite as sweetly, safely bucolic as this little girl's is.

Pauline Bayne's illustration of The Wood Between the Worlds, in The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis.
Her world is very Narnian ...

E.H. Shepard's map of Hundred Acre Wood, in Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne
... very Winnie the Pooh ...

Ashdown Wood, the inspiration for Hundred Acre Wood
... very British ...

A west-coast, BC, rain forest
... not very British Columbian.

A Massachusetts wood
Granted, I started out in Massachusetts, where forests were more like the British ones...

A Kootenay forest
... and the woods in the Kootenays are less dense with undergrowth than the ones on the west coast ...

This Spirit Bear is eating her catch, a wild salmon, everyone's favourite dish in this part of the world.
 ... but the land that I call my own, British Columbia's west coast, is wild indeed, a land where this is what we call a clearing ...

Stanley Park, Vancouver
... and this is our version of Central Park, right in our huge city ...

Stanley Park, Vancouver
... with this as the park's rim. I walked this wall the day before my back went out forever. I miss walking so much!

Around here, we call the woods, "the bush," and it's pretty common to have to hack through it with a machete.

If you want open spaces, you often have to make them ... 

Christopher Robin, Tigger, and Winnie the Pooh, by E.H. Shepard
... don't expect to just stumble upon one in our woods ... 

... unless it's a clear cut, like this horror from the 1970s, when I first moved here. 

Anyone who thinks rural living is all sunshine and roses ...

... has no idea. This is the pulp mill that dominated my tiny town, and made the whole town smell like foul breath.

This is the even larger mill in a town 30 minutes away. Most of the men in my town worked at one of these two mills. By middle age, many had lost at least one finger to those mills. It wasn't even cause for comment. 

Notice, in this older photo of the mill, nothing is growing for miles around it. The pollution was so severe, nothing could grow. When I moved up to these mountains in the late 1970s, the owners of the mill had been forced to cut down on pollution - a little - and the trees had started to grow back. They were all about four feet tall, uniformly.

But still, every time we drove into town (to go to the only mall within hours), this is what I saw.

Everything was to be used up and tossed away, with no regard for the consequences. Then, and often now, rural living was about earning your living by exploiting the land ...

... and, in some cases, exploiting female bodies too. The location was so very remote, who would know? Except the perpetrators, who would never tell. And the victims, who might tell, but no-one would believe them.

So, in some ways, this story of a little girl who learns to become one with nature through stillness and silence? It was utterly foreign to me. 

But I did remember Massachusetts. In fact, I first read Come Play With Me when I still lived in Massachusetts. 

And I did know about the sanctity of silence and stillness.

The classic image of Quaker prayer, The Presence in the Midst
After all, I was raised Quaker, where prayer is silence, perhaps something like the trendy meditation of today, though I don't know.

And that sun, that all seeing, all knowing, gentle, loving sun! That, to me, was what my G-d was like. I was a little girl, all alone - yet never alone, not ever.

I can't remember a time when I couldn't feel the presence of G-d, but I can remember the first time I was consciously aware of that presence. I was about three, my smother and my father were fighting, and I hated it. To escape the tension, I went outside, and pressed my hands on the bark of an oak tree, and listened to the roaring, autumn wind in its leaves and branches.

I was not alone.

If I'd stayed in that part of the world, I might have fallen in love with oak trees.

Instead, I moved to British Columbia, and fell in love with cedar trees.

As an aside, I will never be able to pose like this ...

... without thinking of Betty Grable.

But I digress. As I was saying, I fell in love with cedar trees, and the evergreen, coniferous trees, of the west coast. 

I loved them especially when they were wet with rain, which, of course, was often. I loved the way they looked, and the way they smelled. They were so solid and steady, and gentle, like the father I wished I had.

Me, 6 or 7 years old
In grade one, at recess and lunch, I would wander off to the edges of the playground in the rain, and sit under a cedar, out of view, just absorbing its smells and companionship in my blessed solitude. 

A grounds monitor would often come up to me and ask me if I was okay. I would always tell that I was. I thought she was silly. Didn't she know that I loved this tree? Didn't she know that I was most okay when I was sitting here, in the safe embrace of this tree?

Only looking back do I realize that she wasn't asking me if I was okay in that moment. She was asking me if I was okay in general. She saw my sorrow, and she saw my need for this solace as a sign that something was wrong in my life.

She's the only adult who ever saw that something was wrong, and actually tried to help. The only one. And I do remember her, and would like to thank her for trying.

And, so, this new-found, wild, nature was my solace ... 

... and my joy, my playground, if you will. 

I didn't mind that it made me feel small. It's a comforting feeling, like looking up at the night sky and trying to fathom your place in that magnitude.

So, naturally, when I wore a green dress with a depiction of a forest scene on its fabric ...

... I paired it with a natural forest scene in my Victorian, agate brooch.

Although I am crazy for Victorian jewelry these days, I'll admit that it is hard to style some of it with more modern clothing. The brooches are often so small, they can seem to disappear on a modern outfit, which is why they're so often converted into pendants now.

This photo was probably taken by the widow of Abram, one of my relatives who was a photographer to the Tsar's family.
But size of the little brooches worked well with the high-necked styles of the Victorian era. See how sisters, Princess Alexandria and Empress Maria Feodorovna, are both wearing small brooches at their throats? That's how my brooch would have been worn.

Here's a portrait photo of the Empress Feodorovna. You can see more closely the way the high neck of her outfit perfectly displays her tiny brooch. 

Why did I pick these royal women to illustrate my fashion point? Because my family took the photos, that's why!

Yup, you heard me: Three generations of one whole branch of my family were photographers, and some of them were official photographers to the Tsar! You can see my cousin, Abram's imprint on the bottom left of this portrait of the Empress

As Jews, this branch of my family had to get special permission to live in St. Petersburg to fulfil their duties to the Tsar. I wonder so much how they felt about that, living a wealthier, more comfortable, less restricted life than all their relatives - while in service to those who were responsible the systemic oppression of Jews in the first place. It must have been very strange, and perhaps even upsetting. 

Abram (II), one of the 35 relatives I've found who was murdered in the Holocaust
Either way, it didn't save them. When Abram died, his brothers followed the Jewish custom of naming their sons after their departed loved one, and I am very sad to say that at least one of those Abrams was murdered in the Holocaust. This is him. Devastatingly handsome, I know.

I'm related to all three of these children. Their mother is my cousin's widow. Photo circa 1910
But many did get out. These are four members of another branch of my family. When my cousin, the children's father died, this exhausted widow and her three children were left destitute. They made the long, terrifying journey to from the Ukraine to America, where the children's 23 year old, half brother was suddenly their sole support. Can you imagine being him? 

And, just so you know, the two girls, illiterate upon arrival, did get the chance to learn to read and write, and the young chap in the ill fitting suit went on to become a very successful businessman, so, in this case, things went well within a single generation. 

But back to my point about Victorian jewelry: Here's Masche, a poor, widowed worker, wearing the same fashion that the Empress wore: A high necked outfit, with a tiny brooch at her throat!

I tried, in my way, to mimic that look.

A word about agate. I tried to find examples of Victorian women wearing dentritic agate, like mine, but I couldn't. Agate in general was very popular in Victorian jewelry. It's naturally occurring, but is not a precious stone, and it was often set in rolled gold, the Victorian equivalent of gold-fill today, so I'm guessing that it was not very expensive. (These pieces are not very expensive today either, if you're interested in owning one.)

A Victorian woman wearing a banded agate brooch at her throat.
But it was pretty ...
A green, Edwardian, banded agate, watch fob.
... and kind of magical. At least, it feels magical to me that these amazing colours and patterns occur naturally.

I'm happy to say that this particular piece is now in my own collection of vintage and antique jewelry, but ...

... it almost feels like a shame to wear agate close to the body, where you can't see the light passing through it. 

From Short, Round, and Cute: A Distinguished Older Gentlewoman
That's when their magic is at its best.

At any rate, agate is a perfect choice when you're wearing an outfit that echoes nature itself.

So are earth tones, like these great, 1930/40s style, brown oxfords ...

... and this woolly, brown sweater. I think I found it in a free bin somewhere, years and years ago. I always get compliments on it, and I'm never quite sure why.  

Maybe it's the strange, little, knit flowers on it. People seem to like those. 

To tie the brown sweater in with the green dress, I added this green brooch which I think may be from the 1930s. Since I wore it, Beau managed to knock a rhinestone loose on it, and then lose that rhinestone. Boo. Oh well. So it goes, especially with old, costume pieces like this one.

In keeping with the green and brown, earth tones, I wore this green hair clip. I got it at a drug store decades ago, and am really surprised by how often it seems a good match for an outfit. 

I added these sweet, little earrings, which I think are paste and brass, and, again, probably from the 1930s. 

As with many earrings made in the first half of the 20th century, these charmers have screw backs. As much as I adore vintage jewelry, which is a lot, I do find screw backs to be such a bother! I do think twice and even thrice before buying them because I know I'll seldom wear them. But, whenever I do wear them, I like the really authentic touch they add to my outfits. Even just screwing the in place makes me feel like I've travelled back in time.

Overall, I felt that my look was a success. It made me feel lovely, and harmonized with nature in a playful way.

I felt like this little girl, becoming one with nature ...

Me, on the left, 6 years old
... just as I had done ...

... in Massachusetts, in the Adirondacks, on the west coast of Canada, and in the Kootenay mountains. Wherever there is natural beauty, I can make myself at home ...

... but I prefer my home, the one I have chosen for myself after a lifetime of being moved around. My land is a chosen land, and it's one of the best decisions I ever made. 

(I'm sharing this with Not Dressed as Lamb, and Not Dead Yet Style.)

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love your writing. It's so melodic. I spent a lot of time too, as a kid, finding God in nature and feeling safer there.

    Also: "If you want open spaces, you often have to make them ... " That sounds like a solid life motto right there.

    Thank you for sharing the lovely dress and letting us meander through your thoughts with you.