The Strange vision of the North in Canada- a lecture

I’ve been sharing lectures from my course on Canadian folklore in literature and art. Today’s lecture is a little different because I talk about the north more broadly in Canada’s artistic culture. Please feel free to use and edit this lecture however you may want for your own classes. As you can see, I have not edited out personal references or asides, so you’ll need to make this your own.

As I say in the lecture, this is a topic that has been covered extensively, but I haven’t tried to engage with that literature here. For anyone interested in a deeper dive, please read what I consider to be the definitive work on the topic:

Grace, Sherrill. Canada and the Idea of North. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

Shawn Smallman

The strange stories of Canada’s west coast

I’ve been sharing a series of lectures that I wrote for a Canadian folklore in literature and art class that I used to teach. Here is a lecture I wrote on one of my favorite authors, British Columbia’s Dick Hammond, who was a master of the short story. Please feel free to edit and use this lecture in any class.

Shawn Smallman

Dick Hammond

Terms:

Dick Hammond

House by the Talking Falls

mayoi-ga

Background

  • Canadian author Dick Hammond wrote of the B.C. coast in three volumes, in which he explored the remote communities that dotted Canada’s Pacific edge. 
  • He was born in 1929 and spent his entire life on the part of the Pacific Coast that is called the “Sunshine Coast,” because it is in the rain shadow of Vancouver island
  • He was self-educated, but extremely well-read
  • He used to collect rare operatic recordings (http://www.harbourpublishing.com/author/DickHammond/171)
  • He worked as a salvage logger, a form of life that is romanticized in Canada
  • There even used to be a tv series about it called Beachcombers, which was very popular when I was growing up in the 1970s
  • He married a teacher in 1970
  • Jo Hammond was herself an author, who wrote a memoir of her life: Edge of the Sound: Memoirs of a West Coast Log Salvager 
  •  http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=10107
  • she was quite adventurous and had traveled through the Panama canal on a freighter to come to the West Coast
  • she later worked as a salvage logger herself
  • they had two children, Patricia and Eric
  • Hammond died in 2008, in Sechelt Inlet on the coast
  • His stories often described the lives of the working class, and the strength and craftsmanship that they displayed.
  • His stories often do not have any supernatural characteristics, but focus upon special skills
  • In one story, a black smith is the only person who can repair a broken drill, which would take a week or more to obtain from Vancouver, which would be disastrous for the logging group
  • In another, one man is the only person who knows how to run a particular piece of equipment, and makes a visiting engineer look foolish
  • Some of the skills that he celebrates are quite mundane
  • A tinker who repairs broken pots is honored in one story
  • No skill is too small for Dick Hammond to celebrate it
  • But above all else, he celebrated the skills of the logger
  • Hammond work for years as a small hand logger
  • These men –and they were almost always men, despite his wife’s profession- would travel the coast in their boats looking for isolated stands of timber along the coast on public lands
  • They would work them in a small group, and then take the logs out to sell
  • It was a very hard way to make a life, that required someone who was really self-sufficient
  • That person had to know how to log, how to work machinery, how to run a boat in sometimes treacherous waters
  • These are the skills that Hammond celebrated
  • Very much books to celebrate the working class

The Past

  • But they also evoked a coast haunted by its past, from the recent settlers to the deep history of B.C.’s Indigenous peoples.
  • There is a post by Mackie on a Northwest Archaeology blog that makes a very good case that aspects of indigenous mythology in Haida Gwaii regarding Raven retain memories of the landscape and environment from 12,000 years ago: https://qmackie.com/2009/12/10/raven-walking-geological-transformation/
  • The indigenous peoples of Canada have a history in the region that stretches so far back that their earliest campsites are likely buried deep under the Pacific Ocean, because of rising water levels
  • but traces -including such ephemera as footprints- can be found on some islands: https://www.westernliving.ca/How-Archaeologists-Found-the-Oldest-Footprints-in-North-America-on-BCs-Calvert-Island
  • The BC coast was settled by Europeans in the mid to late nineteenth century
  • Hammond romanticizes this period in some ways, and the strength and independence of the earlier settlers
  • But he is also aware of the negative aspects of this period
  • He talked about the social isolation, particularly for the women who stayed at home, and the family strains that this created, including within his own family
  • The main character in his stories is his father, and they are told as if they were stories that he heard from his father
  • His father had died in 1975, and like his son, spent much of his life as a logger who traveled the coast by boat
  • Other family members are minor characters, such as his uncle, who was gassed while a soldier in World War One and never truly recovered
  • These are strong people
  • Men –and it’s a very male look at the past- were stronger, braver, and less likely to complain than in the past
  • But this approach also gives an air of verisimilitude, an aspect of reality to these stories
  • At times it appears hard to tell- are these stories complete fiction or does he really believe the stories that he is recounting? 
  • The reader is left wondering if the narrator is playing a character, and is he just really good at never breaking character
  • Or are these supposed to be true oral traditions, the memory of one coastal family?
  • Certainly there are many characteristics of oral tales in these stories
  • One can imagine them being told and retold around a family table over the years
  • In one case Hammond said that his publisher insisted on publishing these works as fiction, but they were all true
  • Indeed, he said that his books were all true, and faithfully recorded his fathers’ tales http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=165
  • So perhaps he did views these stories as a record of the settlers’ experience of the coast
  • But Hammond is also very aware that the European history on this coast is a short one
  • This presents a problem, because his work is haunted by the past
  • In one of his less effective stories he tells the story of his father and his friend exploring caves on the coast, and finding some old candles that they learned had been left by the Spanish
  • The story doesn’t work, because it is so awkward to explain how the candles came to be there, or how the men came to learn that they had been left by Spanish explorers
  • At one point, Hammond said that he had the “soul of an antiquary.”
  • To people who have read M.R. James, perhaps the best known author of ghost stories in the English language, it was very clear that Hammond was evoking M.R. James
  • But unlike Hammond there were no ancient mansions, ruined churches, Saxon crowns, or other European aspects of the past to engage with
  • This meant that Hammond had to engage with the Indigenous history of the coast

Michael Crummy’s Galore- a lecture

I am sharing a series of lectures from a class that I used to teach on folklore in Canadian literature and art. Here is a brief lecture that I gave on Michael Crummy’s Galore, a novel which is set in Newfoundland. You are free to use, edit and adapt this lecture however you want for your own classes. I apologize for the formatting changes at points; as you might guess, I cut and pasted in the section on magical realism from a lecture in my “Introduction to Latin America” class.

Be warned- if you are just reading this lecture for fun, there are major spoilers in this lecture.

Shawn Smallman

Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach- a lecture

As you could see from my last blog post, I used to teach a class on Canadian folklore in art and literature. I’m going to share some lectures from that class. Please feel free to adapt and use this in your own classes. Spoiler alert: this lecture contains key plot material, so if you plan to read the novel (which you should), please do that first. You can also see my book review here.

If you are curious to learn more about Indigenous literature, please listen to my podcast episode with Grace Dillon about Indigenous Futurism; it’s episode eight. Or if you’d like to know how Indigenous peoples understood Sasquatch (and Ogopogo, a Canadian lake monster) please listen to this podcast episode of “The Secret History of Canada.”

The odd north- Canadian Folklore in Literature and Art

Henri Julien (1852–1908) Blue pencil, Study for La Chasse-galerie [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nearly ten years ago I used to teach a short summer course on Canadian folklore in literature and film. I no longer have the opportunity to teach the class, but I wanted to share the syllabus in case it might inspire anyone else. I’ll also share a series of lectures for the class in coming days. Happy Halloween everyone.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

A malaria vaccine and a strange tree

Photo by Olga Stalska on Unsplash

On October 6, 2021 the World Health Organization made a historic announcement. They had approved the world’s first malaria vaccine, which had been in development for more than thirty years. Of course, this amount of time is trivial compared to the history of malaria itself. The disease is one of humanity’s oldest scourges. There are tombs along the Nile that hold mummies who died of malaria. As Rome collapsed in the late fourth and fifth century malaria ravaged Italy, and depopulated entire regions. When a Spanish conquistador descended the Amazon river from Peru to the Atlantic, the friar Carvajal reported that the river bank was so densely settled that each town lay only a crossbow shot from the next one. A hundred years later these communities had vanished. And even today in Africa and southeast Asia every year hundreds of thousands of children either die or are left with life long disabilities (such as epilepsy) from the disease. In many regions, it’s almost impossible to avoid, although the WHO has put great effort into promoting sleeping nets and insecticides.

I recently did a podcast interview with Dr. Marylynn Steckley, who talked about her experience researching in Haiti, while both she and her family suffered from frequent illness. Malaria makes some parts of the world difficult to live and work in for everyone, including outsiders. Although I have not had malaria, I have known many people who have, and for whom it had an enduring impact on their health. Indeed, for many of my Africanist colleagues it was almost assumed that they would acquire the disease, and perhaps live with it’s long term effects. Some of my African colleagues -such as one archaeologist- have many stories about their bouts with the disease.

It’s ironic that during this terrible COVID-19 pandemic we finally have some positive news. This is not only the first vaccine against malaria, but -as many observers note- the first against any parasitic disease. As such, it’s a proof of principle. Some people have wondered if it might prove to be impossible to develop vaccines against these class of diseases, since parasites have evolved to overcome the human immune system for long periods of time. Now we have seen that it can be done.

The vaccine is known as RTS,S/AS01, and it has its limitations. It’s only effective around 40% of the time. It also requires four doses. Even so, given that more 200 million people a year are infected with malaria, this can prevent an immense amount of suffering. More vaccines are in the development process.

There is something remarkable about this new vaccine. It relies on an ingredient from an evergreen tree (the quillay tree) that grows in only one place in the world, Chile on the Pacific coast of South America. This rare ingredient is an adjuvant, which is an ingredient in a vaccine that helps to create an immune response in the human body. The first useful medication for malaria was quinine, which comes from a tree grown in the Amazonian region. Now, once again, Indigenous knowledge and a South American plant, is proving vital in the struggle against malaria. It also places intense pressure upon the stocks of the quillay trees, especially as this ingredient is also being used to develop at least one COVID-19 vaccine and a shingles vaccination. There is currently a technological race on to understand how to extract this ingredient from seeds and immature Quillay trees, because currently the supply replies upon mature trees of at least thirty years of age.

Humanity still has a long way to go in this fight against a killer that even affected pharaohs. But -with help from an usual Latin American tree- the world has its first vaccine, and that is an immense step forward.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Werewolves of New France

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

In my latest episode of my podcast, Dispatch 7, I talk about the folklore concerning werewolves (in French, the loup garou) in France’s former empire in North America. I used to give this talk when I lectured at the University of Trier in Germany, and it was always popular with the students. I’ll also be sharing some lectures on this blog regarding Canadian folklore in art, literature and film, as we approach Halloween.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

The lessons of COVID-19

In my latest podcast episode for Dispatch 7, I talk about what we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Why did some developed countries respond more poorly than developing nations? What lessons does history teach us about the value of quarantine? And what is a One World approach to global health?

Shawn Smallman

Why was the 1918 flu pandemic more frightening than COVID-19?

The Spanish Influenza. Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe. Wikipedia commons.

According to the CDC, as of September 10, 2021, 652,480 Americans had died of COVID-19. This is nearly as many as the perhaps 675,000 Americans who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. But there seems to be much less fear of COVID-19 now than there was of the influenza pandemic then, at least in some parts of the United States. Why?

Of course, the first point to make is that there was certainly denial and minimizing in the United States in 1918, which people used to justify holding everything from war-bond rallies to weddings. Still, after the terrible month of November 1918 this declined. Is the difference between then and now in part that we live in social media bubbles? I think that there is some truth to this, but there are a few factors that explain the different attitude that many people had towards influenza then.

In 1918, there was a “W” shaped mortality curve, as most people who died were infants, young adults and the elderly. Before the arrival of the delta variant, there was a perception that those people most at risk of COVID-19 were over 65, and perhaps their deaths were less shocking. In contrast, younger people felt relatively safe. In 1918 it was people in the prime of their life who were dying, as well as their children. This made people feel more vulnerable.

Today, people typically die in the hospital. In 1918, if you lived in a rural area -as did most of the population- a trip to the hospital would take time and might not be easy. More people were cared for –and died– at home. I think that this meant that people saw the results of outbreak much more directly. Today, the ill vanish into hospitals. Their suffering leaves nurses and doctors traumatized, but isn’t visible in the same way that the 1918 pandemic was, when family members and neighbors would see the bodies taken out the front door.

There were three distinct waves to the 1918 influenza pandemic. But the fall 1918 wave had a much higher peak in the death rate. Of course, the spring 1918 influenza outbreak was terrible in some places such as the military camps in Kansas. But by November 1918 the number of deaths was so crushing that denial was no longer an option in many communities. People were too busy taking care of their neighbors; everyone could watch the gravediggers. COVID-19 has been more spread out, which has changed how people have talked about it.

The US population was much smaller in 1918 than now, at just over 103 million people, versus 328.2 million. So although the total numbers of deaths are similar, the death rate was roughly three times higher a century ago. People saw much more death during the 1918 pandemic.

I also wonder if people didn’t have a different attitude towards medicine. The 1918 pandemic took place before most childhood vaccines, antibiotics, and modern therapies. People had more limited expectations for what a doctor might do. Now, it might be that many people expect that if they go to the hospital they will be saved, because they have often seen sick family members or friends healed in a hospital. I can’t prove this, but I suspect some COVID-19 patients are shocked when they find out that they will die. In 1918, people respected and valued doctors, but the life expectancy for men was 36.6 years, and 42.2 for women. People didn’t feel as invulnerable -and didn’t assume that the hospital would save them- because they were more familiar with death. In 1917 -the year before the pandemic- the second most common cause of death in the US was pneumonia and influenza.

Of course, in 1918 people relied heavily on newspapers and the government for information, whereas now people turn to social media. But I think that people were more familiar with infectious illness in 1918, and experienced the pandemic in a different way than with COVID-19. This difference perhaps helps to explain why in many states people seem to be much less afraid of COVID-19 than their great-grandparents were during the 1918 pandemic.

Shawn Smallman

Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu- U.S. Army photographer

New light on the mystery of COVID-19’s origins

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

Over the last year and half there has been a bitter debate over the origins of COVID-19, specifically whether it began as a spill-over event from a wild animal to humans (the natural origins hypothesis) or because of an accident at a science facility (the lab leak hypothesis). We now have some new information to shed light on this debate. We’re all familiar with Freedom of Information Requests in the United States. These often don’t lead to the release of information, because in practice individuals or the media often have to take the government to court to get this information. That’s exactly what the Intercept did, and the results were worth it. The Intercept received 900 pages of documents regarding two grants, which they discuss in an article, written by Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl, “New Details Emerge about Coronavirus research at Chinese Lab.”

One of the key issues with the lab leak hypothesis was whether work with bat coronaviruses was being done at a lab in Wuhan, including gain of function work. Yes, yes it was, although there is a significant debate about what constitutes gain of function work. And it turns out the documents that prove this come from a U.S. based health organization called Ecohealth Alliance, which used federal funds to finance this research. This has been suspected for some time, but we didn’t have much information to clarify the details of this work. Now we know that a US researcher, Peter Daszak, had a grant to screen bats for novel coronaviruses. This in and of itself might be valuable research, if undertaken under adequate safety conditions. The work was done at the Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment, not The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has received the most attention in the press. And there are concerns about the kind of work researchers were doing with bat coronaviruses. According to Richard Ebright, they were doing more than just infecting ordinary mice with this virus: “The viruses that they constructed were tested for their ability to infect mice that were engineered to display human type receptors on their cell(s)’.” According to this article, the grant to do this work ran from 2014 to 2019.

I was initially skeptical that the work of the Ecohealth Alliance could have contributed in any way to a lab leak. But there does seem to have been a contradiction of interests in the early investigation of COVID-19’s emergence. Peter Daszak was one of the scientists who signed a letter to the Lancet on February 19, 2020 in which scientists denounced as conspiracy theories the idea that a lab leak began the pandemic. He also was part of the WHO’s inquiry commission that went to China in January 2021 to try to uncover the origins of the virus. Since he was involved with work at question in China, his presence would seem to undermine the potential impartiality of this investigation. More recently, he has withdrawn from at least one effort to investigate the pandemic’s origins: “Dr Peter Daszak, president of the US-based EcoHealth Alliance, has “recused himself” from the inquiry by leading medical journal the Lancet after he failed to declare ties to the Wuhan Laboratory of Virology, which was conducting research into coronavirus in bats.” The point is that the early investigation of the lab leak theory may not have been fully impartial, and key evidence was missing.

Some scientists say that what these newly-revealed documents demonstrate is shocking. As Richard H. Ebright (Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University) has said, the “materials further reveal that one of the resulting novel, laboratory-generated SARS-related coronaviruses –one not been (sic.) previously disclosed publicly– was more pathogenic to humanized mice than the starting virus from which it was constructed. . .”

We need to have better information on multiple questions: did miners in southern China (specifically the Mojiang mine in Yunnan) suffer from an acute pneumonia similar to COVID-19 in 2012? Was this pneumonia caused by a coronavirus which was then brought to a laboratory in Wuhan for further research? Was gain of function work with coronaviruses done at one or more labs in Wuhan, and what -precisely- were the biosafety practices and procedures? Was there a major move at one of these labs in December 2019, and what were the safety practices at the lab during the move, particularly for bats and other animals, as well as coronavirus samples? Were any employees of these labs ill with a pneumonia-like illness in November/early December 2019? Is it true that one U.S. based scientist, Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, heard of the outbreak on December 15, 2019, well before China revealed the outbreak to the WHO? If so, does this mean that the Chinese authorities knew of the outbreak, but did not share this information in a timely fashion, so that the world could try to prevent the disease from escaping China? Increasingly, the answer to most of these questions would seem to be a plausible yes.

As Alina Chan (a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute) points out, COVID-19 wouldn’t be the only example of a leak at a facility in China causing a significant disease outbreak. Elizabeth Shim’s article on this outbreak, “Brucellosis cases in China exceed 10,000 after vaccine factory accident,” is well worth reading. So we know that such accidents happen, including in China, at the same moment that COVID-19 itself emerged.

While we cannot yet know the truth, as others have said, it seems a strange coincidence that the outbreak began in the same city in China where -as these documents from the Intercept show- work was being done on bat coronaviruses. And how can we trust any denials, when much of the information that we had was not originally released by EcoHealth Alliance or the Chinese government, but rather by a small band of digital detectives scouring the web, as well as journalists, such as those at the Intercept?

Of course the lab leak hypothesis is not proven. Most epidemics begin with a natural cross-over event from animals to humans. But the irony is that if, indeed, the virus emerged from a lab leak, it not only did so unintentionally, but also because scientists were trying to study coronaviruses to avoid and prevent epidemics. If the lab leak hypothesis is correct, I can’t help but feel empathy for the scientists and funding agencies, which must have been horrified as they realized what they might have unleashed. But it is long past time for transparency, so that everyone can understand the data and evidence regarding whether a lab-leak in Wuhan, China began this pandemic.

If you want to see the documents (two grant applications) themselves, Mara Hvistendahl (@Mara Hvistendahl) has Tweeted the links, which you can for yourself here. The first one is the key document:

“Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence”
https://t.co/FrOP7tSs4D

“Understanding Risk of Zoonotic Virus Emergence in Emerging Infectious Disease Hotspots of Southeast Asia”
https://t.co/YDmfbcHcoN https://twitter.com/marahvistendahl/status/1435180983754579973?s=27

I want to thank both Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl for their careful investigative reporting, and making these documents public.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

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