Saturday, April 10, 2010

The history of our Land has been played out by Hand



Hardscrabble” is a term referring to poor, rocky, often hilly tracts of land which are/were difficult, almost impossible to grow anything on.In the 1800s, when the areas of Canada that were considered 'good for farming' had already been claimed, subsequent settlers reluctantly began to appropriate hardscrabble . Beyond the initial clearing of glacial till and rocky terrain to make the land suitable for agriculture, this type of farm land required a lot more work. If they didnt know it already, land owners soon learned that hardscrabble farming required the additional constant gathering and removing of vast amounts of stones and small boulders which were forced up through the shallow soil every spring!

There was little time to do much with these stones other than push them off into the hedge rows. They were considered to be good for nothing. It was merely expedient to get them out of the way, and that was it! Miles of stones lay along the borders of properties forming at best, an indication of property lines or crude enclosures for livestock. Occasionally however, a hard working farm family would commit to building something with the profusion of stone material being harvested on their property. That these people had time and energy left to build more formal "dry stone walls" on their land after all the other requirements of running even a moderately productive farm, is tremendously impressive.

Throughout Ontario particularly, there are clusters of these walls. One is tempted to conclude that they are in fact, another historic example of 'aesthetics' winning over 'expedience' ..(along with tall baseboards, high ceilings and stenciled walls, to name just a few) ... As we look at these walls now, it may be that they seem crudely built, and given the hardship of hardscrabble farming, that is understandable, but more likely they are showing evidence of normal deterioration associated with even well built walls , which happens over a long period of time. Often however, the haphazard look of these walls is the result of abuse or lack of care which others should have given to these silent testaments of the hardworking people who went before us.

It is ironic that part of the word 'hardscrabble'- scrabble - is now the name given to an activity of 'leisure'; a board game using random letters to form words, where, back then, it would seem, there was little opportunity for such diversions ; but perhaps there was. Maybe both activities, that of creating walls from useless stones, and fitting letters together to form interlocking words, have always had something in common.In the past, working to create anything, be it essential or not, from simple materials such as stones and wood was seen as important. Nowadays we have more sophisticated, less creative ways of using our time.

Now we have more modern materials and devices to save time as well. Labour intensive walls built of stone have been replaced by easy to build interlocking blocks of concrete. Board games and activities that require imagination and clever interactive involvement have been replaced by the 'easy-to-imagine' virtual reality of video games and home- theatre systems.

Recently as I gathered rocks and began to build a new wall along a small section of farm property , it occurred to me how like 'building a dry stone wall' playing Scrabble actually is!I wonder if you have thought about it .For example...- Having to figure out, as soon as possible the big awkward letters like Q and J, and how to use them up 'against' the other pieces.- The need to 'nestle in together' (almost like hearting) the small words between the others.- Setting up words (or stones) in anticipation of being able to place others.- Always trying things out, creatively experimenting and perhaps using the material you have at hand in a completely surprising way.- Holding back some of the better material of your selection to use later on.- Swapping tiles or rocks occasionally.( by tossing them back in the pile of unused ones )- And at certain times, missing a turn and going off for a coffee.- Coming back later and seeing how things start to 'fit together' where they didn't before.

My friend Norman Haddow,( a master waller in Scotland), and I play scrabble occasionally, over the internet, During one of our games I sent him a message presenting some of my thoughts about the whole 'scrabble/walling relationship' and he wrote back...

"Yes I like the analogy .I suppose our vocabulary is the pile of rocks when we go on site. The foundation is how we play the first few moves then like walling, the rest of the game depends on how we are feeling and a on luck ,for example whether it is really cold, or nasty wet, when our hands do not seem to do what we had hoped."

To sum up, although scrabble (unlike walling) is a 'competitive' game, it is essentially still a very constructive activity. Carefully placing by 'hand' a random selection of stones or letters together to form a prescribed pattern of meaning, is a challenging and satisfying way to use your time. Like scrabble, to the degree that you give it your all you can take pride in the fact that you have been involved in establishing a network or letters (interactively) or stones (structurally) in intricate ordered relationships

Interestingly enough an article about the rules of Scrabble being changed, was posted today in the Globe and Mail

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