Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Montreal Nature Then and Now


Blue Bells from Flora Nicholson's Nature Diary, 1912.

A few days ago, it was the first day of Spring and I believe the high temperature was 25 Celsius or so. (Today it's almost 0 Celsius, what a let down. But it's sunny.)

A hundred years ago, on March 21, it was 14 below zero Fahrenheit (Canada used that measure back then.)

I know because Flora Nicholson, subject of my story Threshold Girl,  was a student at Macdonald Teachers College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue (about 2o kilometers from where I sit right now) and for an assignment she had to keep a Nature Diary. (It was an era of rampant industrialization and educators were nostalgic for more simple, agrarian times. They felt city kids needed to 'go back to nature' if only in theory. )

Date: March 21st. Events: First day of Spring. Notes: 14 below. Skating!

By April 1 st the temperature had risen to 45 degrees (F). O Canada!

On April 7 Flora writes: Sap of Maple Tree. Good run of sap on Sunday as night before was cold and frosty.

(Our very warm 2012 March means much less maple syrup. I've heard differing numbers, but a farmer near Ottawa who supplies a resto where my son works said the syrup run is only 30%. And there's fear that young crops like asparagus may be lost with a frost, so we are all going to pay for that warm spring, with even more expensive vegetables. Alas.)

Her entry on April 12th: English Sparrow. Brown backs with touches of black. Male has large black spot on throat and up towards side of head. Tame.

And on April 16th. Robins. Back dark brown, Head Dark Brown. Breast reddish. Flies low. Cheerful song. Also: Woodpecker. (red-headed) Resembles robin. Back brown and white. Head reddish. Pecks trunks of trees with its bill.

This was a day after the Titanic sank. I'm pretty sure word was out on the street about the disaster.  Flora's sister, Edith, a teacher at Westmount Methodist Institute in Westmount,  writes her mother on April 19th:
"This year has gone by very quickly after all. What a dreadful accident to the Titanic and such a great loss of life. It seems to have cast a gloom over every one. People can talk of nothing else. Mr. Hays will be a great loss to the Grand Trunk. There are to be memorial services in all the churches on Sunday morning. A special one for Mr. Hays in the American Presbyterian.

I think I shall go out to Macdonald tomorrow and see Flora.
Flora and one of her 1911 letters from Macdonald College to her Mom in Richmond, Quebec.
Click here for a video tour of her portfolio.





(Still, Edith's April 19, 1912 letter) Later Sunday Afternoon.

I went out to Macdonald on the 1.30 train and spent a pleasant afternoon. She is looking splendid and is so beautifully dug out there. It is an ideal spot. The ice has moved out of the Ottawa a little but not yet from the St. Lawrence. I went to the memorial service in the American Presbyterian this morning. The front was draped with black. The pulpit with the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. The service was very impressive . He is certainly well spoken of."

Flora doesn't make an entry on the 20th, the day her sister Edith visits her. But on April 21st, Flora makes her next entry in her Nature Diary. The ice has moved on the river, she writes, repeating Edith's observation.

And she continues making entries for about 10 8x5 inch pages, in pencil, in her neat school teacher handwriting. She observes junkos (aren't they winter birds?) clipping sparrows, crow blackbirds,  purple martins, and on April24, elm trees with buds about to burst into bloom. On May 4, 1912  she sees the dog-toothed violets of the picture. Six petals, six stamens.

Flora's  final entry: May 28th. Saw a bumblebee.


Flora graduated in June, as described in Threshold Girl. She gets a job on the City Board, teaching in Griffintown. Her students are mostly the children of newly arrived Russian Jews.

In 1914 she writes a letter home saying she is invigilating at Parent's Day and she describes a school packed with parents anxious to know how little Johnny and Sally are doing.

Here is a sample classroom exercise, in boxwork, as described in Flora's Macdonald Portfolio. Boxwork was part of Manual Training " to instil a taste and love for  labour, to inspire a respect for labour, to develop independence and self-reliance, to train in habits of order, neatness, cleanliness and methodical work, to train the eye to a sense of form and beauty, to develop industry, patience and perseverance.” (That bit is from Flora's notes.)

To be made in the 3rd year,

I will show the children a box, already made up that is both closed and opened out flat. Then I shall take a little review of the work taken up, mostly square tray, fancy tray, explaining that we use very much the same measurements in the cubicle box. (She spells cubicle cubical.)

Then I shall have the students place their cards on the table, with straight edge facing them. Then I shall have them measure two inches from right hand edge both at back and front edges and joining these points and having them cut off that strip.

Then I shall have them measure left and right hand edges and from back and front edges and joining these points which gives us three rectangles and  six equal squares. 

Then I would ask the pupils how many faces there are in a cube. They would invariably reply 6. So they would see we have too many squares.

Then I would have them draw diagonals from lower squares on left and right hand side and also from squares on right and left hand side towards the back edge, score the other line and cut the heavily marked one and fold. 

As I was giving instruction for this, I would draw it on the blackboard.



Flora's Candy Box from her Portfolio.

Flora continued to teach all her life, despite marrying and having children.

She also continued to draw and document Canadian nature scenes in her paintings.