Friday, September 07, 2012
Who Is John Galt?
Thanks to Eric Thomson for drawing my attention to the following episode in the history of arboricide, from The Autobiography of John Galt, 2 vols. (London: Cochrane and M'Crone, 1833), vol. II, chapter IX (The Founding of Guelph), pp. 56-63 (at 56-59, footnotes omitted):
On the 22nd of April, the day previous to the time appointed for laying the foundations of my projected polis, I went to Galt, a town situated on the banks of the Grand river, which my friend the Honourable William Dixon, in whose township it is situated, named after me long before the Canada Company was imagined; it was arrived at the maturity of having a post-office before I heard of its existence. There I met by appointment at Mr. Dickson's, Dr. Dunlop, who held a roving commission in the Canada Company and was informed that the requisite woodmen were assembled.John Galt (1779-1839) also wrote biographies of the poet Byron and of the painter Benjamin West (1738-1830). It's appropriate therefore to illustrate this post with one of West's paintings, Woodcutters in Windsor Park:
Next morning he walked after breakfast towards the site which had been selected. The distance was about eighteen miles from Galt, half of it in the forest, but till we came near the end of the road no accident happened. Scarcely, however, had we entered the bush, as the woods are called, when the doctor found he had lost the way. I was excessively angry, for such an incident is no trifle in the woods; but after "wandering up and down" like the two babes, with not even the comfort of a blackberry, the heavens frowning and the surrounding forest sullenly still, we discovered a hut, and "tirling at the pin," entered and found it inhabited by a Dutch shoemaker. We made him understand our lost condition, and induced him to set us on the right path. He had been in the French army, and had, after the peace, emigrated to the United States; thence he had come into Upper Canada, where he bought a lot of land, which, after he had made some betterments, he exchanged for the location in the woods, or as he said himself, "Je swapé" the first land for the lot on which he was now settled.
With his assistance we reached the skirts of the wild to which we were going, and were informed in the cabin of a squatter that all our men had gone forward. By this time it began to rain, but undeterred by that circumstance, we resumed our journey in the pathless wood. About sunset, dripping wet, we arrived near the spot we were in quest of a shanty, which an Indian, who had committed murder, had raised as a refuge for himself.
It may be proper to mention here, that a shanty is a temporary shed formed of the branches of trees; such a tabernacle as Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, according to the old Scottish ballad, retired to during the prevalence of a pestilence.
"Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,We found the men, under the orders of Mr. Prior, whom I had employed for the Company, kindling a roaring fire, and after endeavouring to dry ourselves, and having recourse to the store-basket, I proposed to go to the spot chosen for the town. By this time the sun was set, and Dr. Dunlop, with his characteristic drollery, having defied his wet garb, and dressed himself Indian fashion, in blankets, we proceeded with Mr. Prior, attended by two woodmen with their axes.
They were twa bonny lasses,
They bigget a bower on yon burn brae
And theekit it o'er wi' rashes."
It was consistent with my plan to invest our ceremony with a little mystery, the better to make it be remembered. So intimating that the main body of the men were not to come we walked to the brow of the neighbouring rising ground, and Mr. Prior having shewn the site selected for the town, a large maple tree was chosen; on which, taking an axe from one of the woodmen, I struck the first stroke. To me at least the moment was impressive,—and the silence of the woods, that echoed to the sound, was as to the sigh of the solemn genius of the wilderness departing for ever.
The doctor followed me, then, if I recollect correctly, Mr. Prior, and the woodmen finished the work. The tree fell with a crash of accumulating thunder, as if ancient Nature were alarmed at the entrance of social man into her innocent solitudes with his sorrows, his follies and his crimes.
I do not suppose that the sublimity of the occasion was unfelt by the others, for I noticed that after the tree fell, there was a funereal pause, as when the coffin is lowered into the grave; it was, however, of short duration, for the doctor pulled a flask of whiskey from his bosom, and we drank prosperity to the City of Guelph.