Archive for December, 2009

Whooping Cranes – Ink and Watercolour
December 20, 2009


A Pioneer’s Death
December 13, 2009

As Freezing Persons recollect the Snow-

First Chill – then  Stupor – then the letting go. 

 – Emily Dickenson 

The deep freeze in the prairie provinces this week reminded me of my great-grandfather, John Corrigan, who froze to death outside Moose Jaw around 1910.

He was building a house out on the prairie and had the structure finished when a cold snap struck.    John was due back in Moose Jaw that night and when he did not return, his family was terribly worried.  His wife, Emma, went to a neighbour for help.  They got a horse and cart and rode out to the house.  

They found him upstairs on a makeshift bed.  Strangely, the window was open.   My great-grandfather was lying under a blanket – frost crystals on his face.  He froze to death, leaving his wife with five children.   He was about 50 years old.  My great-grandmother had to take in boarders to make ends meet after his death. 

It was not unknown for bitter cold to kill whole families out homesteading at that time, I have been told.

Psycho-killer, qu’est-ce c’est?
December 9, 2009

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

                                                            – Pogo

An American psychologist who specialized in the study of  psychopaths was surprised to find that his own family tree had a few killers in previous generations. 

Curious to know if genetic markers for psychopathic traits might be found among his generation, he ran tests on his family members and found the markers…in himself! 

On reflection, the psychologist saw he had personality traits associated with psychopathy.  He was a high risk taker – had even put his children in danger on one occasion.  Also, emotionally, he had a “low engagement level”.  Some things began to make sense.

His research told him that if he had had a violent, abusive childhood, it may have triggered his inner pit bull.  Luckily, he didn’t.

What’s interesting is that – all his professional life, people must have asked this man what attracted him to the study of psychopaths.  The psychologist probably had several answers, except the real one – which was that, on some level, he identified with their behavior patterns.  

I find this a fascinating example of how people live their lives unconsciously, without a real idea of what is motivating them.  It’s particularly satisfying to see this happen to a psychologist.

In the Bleak Mid Winter/War and Peace
December 3, 2009

The sun that brief November day

Rose cheerless over hills of grey

And, darkly circled, gave at noon

A light more pale than waning moon.

-John Greenleaf Whittier

I’ve misquoted this poem, the month should be December. But these words fit November, which was brutal – consisting of days and days of watery, dim grey light.  Night seemed to start at 4:30 pm.

I never watch DVDs but the gloomy evenings drove me to get the BBC 20 episode version of ‘War and Peace” from the library.  I first saw it decades ago. 

Anthony Hopkins brilliantly stars as Pierre, but all the actors are strong.  Tolstoy’s characters feel themselves pulled along by an intractable fate, which is stronger than they are and which changes their lives before they are even aware of it.  

The most fascinating character is General Mikhail Kutuzov, the commander of the Russian Army.  Old, overweight, blind in one eye, limping and wearing a terrible toupee, Kutuzov was fatalistic about military planning

“The battle (of Borodino) will make no difference.  Tomorrow we will be in the same position with 20,000 less men.  So will the French.”

The fog of war was intense back then.  Armies often had little idea where the enemy was. 

There is a great scene in ‘War and Peace”, where a tall aristocratic officer, bandaged and exhausted, arrives in the Russian army camp in Germany.  He sends his name into Kutuzov’s field office.  A few moments pass.  The elderly Kutuzov comes stumping out in astonishment and gapes at him.   It is General Mack, commander of the Austrian army.  This is the first the Russians have heard that Napoleon has attacked and captured the Austrian army at Ulm.  The Russian army has marched all the way from Russia to join the Austrians – now they must pack up and march back, in flight from the larger French army.

I have always wondered why military history is so fascinating when war is so awful and regrettable.  Watching this series, I’ve realized that military history is about the fantasy that a chaotic, unconscious and brutal manifestation is actually a controlled act. Only history can make sense of some of the forces at work.