Daylight in the Swamp

by Keewatin Dewdney,
ISBN: 1550022512

Legacy of Stone

141 pages,
ISBN: 1896973108

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Recovering a Canadian Archaeology
by M. T. Kelly

One of the earlier recorded hesitations about using the word "discovery" comes from the late nineteenth century, when David Hanbury, a Victorian traveller in the "barren ground" of the Northwest Territories, expressed disquiet at using the term. He complained honestly of naming hills or lakes that his Native guide had been familiar with all his life. So it would be inaccurate, and maybe indelicate as well, to say that Selwyn Dewdney (who lived from 1909 to 1979) discovered rock art in Canada, a form that has existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Dewdney himself, in his wonderful memoir, Daylight in the Swamp, said that he would often reply to casual acquaintances who asked, with no real interest, what he did, "It so happens that I'm the greatest living authority on aboriginal art in Boreal North America east of the Rockies."

And he was. In 1978, he had recorded all but nine of the 301 rock sites in Canada and the adjacent States.

Yet Dewdney was a discoverer: of the wonder and depth of our past, of the haunting echoes in our landscape that many Canadians pass over. In his memorial plaque at the Agawa pictographs he is named the "Father of Rock Art Research in Canada", which is a nice compromise. Yet even those words miss something of the sense of vitality Selwyn Dewdney brought to his subject, and to so much else in his life.

He was raised on the Prairies, but moved early to Kenora in northwestern Ontario, his father being a missionary-another word with a heavy freight of connotations these days-who eventually became Bishop of Keewatin. On his travels Alfred Dewdney would take his son, Selwyn, who seems to have been born with a powerful feeling for the North and its peoples.

Daylight in the Swamp chronicles Dewdney's life, from being a missionary himself to being a teacher, artist, mural painter, novelist, writer, art therapist, and finally chronicler of a vital legacy. He is very straightforward about his life and all that happened to him, and along with his narrative we are given impressive reproductions of his art. One of the great delights of this book is Dewdney's passion for canoeing. I especially liked his phrase "portage or perish"-his explanation why he didn't "bag" rapids like so many extreme canoeists today.

Above all what holds these memoirs together and makes them more than a year-by-year passage through a life is a powerful aesthetic sense of place. It is a powerful theme, reflecting Dewdney the artist and painter, but also something more. The paintings and sketches that are shown in Daylight in the Swamp combine with the sometimes too direct, sometimes elliptical, words into a kind of spirit, a hymn to place. Daylight in the Swamp would seem to be essential reading for anyone deeply interested in "our place here" and all that it means.

There is one thing in this book that should also be mentioned, and which Dewdney does not talk about openly. He was an extremely brave man. His novel, Wind without Rain, chronicled much that was wrong with the teaching profession in Canada, and in the days before the social support Canadians enjoy now, Dewdney resigned his position in support of a colleague. He would take these kinds of positions all his life-when he worked for the Royal Ontario Museum he always did so on contract. Yet always, through extremely trying financial circumstances, he managed to remain an artist and true to his vision while supporting a large family in a culture that was, to say the least, anything but encouraging. His was a life of valorous dedication, and he deserves enormous credit for it.

If Daylight in the Swamp can be speculative about dates and the time frame of certain artifacts, Legacy of Stone: Ancient Life on the Niagara Frontier has no such hesitations. It is a guidebook to a past that goes back four thousand years, written by two archaeologists, Ronald Williamson and Robert MacDonald. The book was produced after a miracle of co-operation between various levels of government and regulatory bodies, including the Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Authority, after Williamson's company saw the site and realized how important it was. This all too rare co-operation is a story in itself, but what counts for the general reader is this highly readable account of ways of life that once again gives the lie to the myth that Canada is a country without an "old"-read, ancient or interesting-history.

This book has stories of trade and warfare, thunderbirds, layers of human bone, technical detail, potsherds, pictures, and context: what people ate and how the weather was. It is a book that can be read straight through or used as a reference, and although scrupulous in its research and mapping it is always accessible. The chapter titles reveal the style: "Layers in the Sand" and "The "Changing Landscape". Within the narrative there are sidebars, such as "How to Get a Date" on radiocarbon dating.

With Legacy of Stone in hand, more adventurous readers will be encouraged to visit the site under the Peace Bridge, timeless in its tranquility in spite of the cities and human activity all about it, and gaze out at a great waterway, the current moving as quickly as the clouds, to feel a powerful past brought imaginatively to life. 

M. T. Kelly's new novel, Save Me, Joe Louis, was published this fall.


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