The Power of Observation: a John Dunn story

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“It’s as true in medicine as it is in many other occupations,” my father was saying after Christmas dinner when the visitors from Pakenham had seated themselves in a semi-circle before the fireplace. “Two features help: first is, a sharpened sense of wonder, and then an acute power of observation.”

Billy and I, stretched out prone on the rug, were caught in a web of wonder; we wondered about the colours mixed into the tongues of flame curling up over the elm block in the fireplace; golden-yellow they were on the outer edges as they licked at the elm, red at the roots of the tongue, and they had a tinge of purple alongside. Billy and I were practising to be observers.

Or take airplanes. From the front bridge one day, in March of the winter before, Billy and I had seen an airplane come right down and land on the thick ice above the sawmill. It had skis on, and the aviator took up passengers up for a “flip”, as he called it, one at a time, for fifteen minutes. Five dollars. A week’s wages.

“The whole world today is an open sea for youngsters to observe,” my father said.

“We should remind the two lads on the floor about that,” my aunt replied. “Are you two lads listening?” she threw down to Billy and me.

We nodded only. But, we didn’t forget.

That summer I remember was the one when I reached six and got launched into the Sea of Observation in the most natural way possible — from the buggy seat.

My new red-painted wagon with the rubber-tired wheels and the name “Canadian Flyer” on the side rails was on the sidewalk outside my father’s office door. Sitting in it, looking up at Frank, our horse, whose big eyes were looking down at me, I’d wondered if Frank had ever learned to read, and if he could read the name, “Canadian Flyer”, on the side rails.

Frank was already harnessed and hitched to the buggy, all ready and waiting at the hitching post for my father to come out and go off to the country on a call. At that moment the door opened, my father came out with his crushed black leather satchel in his hand, and his fedora on his head.

“Would you like to go out for a drive in the country?” he asked me.

“Sure,” said I, shoving the wagon off the sidewalk onto the grass and scrambling up to the buggy seat.

My father set the satchel under the buggy seat, picked up the lines, and Frank started off with us.

“Where are we going?” I asked, the excitement and wonder of new images rising like yeast inside me.

“The twelfth line of Huntley.”

Oh! Although it was June and very warm, shivers of unease struck me: I’d been out to Morrissey’s Creek on the twelfth line once before: we’d taken a forced road at the town line to pass over a wilderness called the Burnt Lands, and ever since I had sheltered a great unease for the place.

A spectral image had stuck in my mind from that first time — distressed grass, flat rock, and crazed junipers; a few scrub spruce that had taken squatters’ rights; a place where fences had been knocked down, and blotted out, so that skeletal strands of rusted barbed wire alone remained; countryside so wizened and mean that a man at the blacksmith shop had declared it worthless, saying “No wonder it’s deserted now: there’s no soil there to grow a crop at all, it’s all flat rock. It’s so bad, well, it’s just so bad today even a rabbit has to carry a lunch pail if he’s going across the Burnt Lands.”

At the twelfth line of Ramsay cemetery all signs of human habitation dropped behind: wilderness enveloped Frank’s equipage. At the town line my father gave a little nudge on the left line, which was enough for Frank to turn off the main road to go across a flat, uninhabited open plain, a trackless wasteland. Without warning my father handed me the two lines to Frank’s bridle, saying “You might want to hold the lines and do the driving now.”

Wow! Holding the lines reverently, I watched Frank’s rear quarters lift and fall, lift and fall, left and right. Iron hoop tires on the buggy wheels squealed in pain going over flat rock. Frank ignored everything. The britchin’ strap swayed, the dashboard shook, I held the lines loose. “Is this the Burnt Lands?” I asked my father.

“It’s a part of the Burnt Lands,” he replied. “One part only of a much bigger area.”

“Was it a bad fire?”

“Very bad. With a demon’s appetite. It destroyed everything in its path, a stretch of country 20 miles long and 7 miles wide. Fire consumed everything; it burned right down through the earth to the bare rock. That was in August, 1870. In the winter that followed people wondered greatly, because spirals of smoke from burning embers kept curling upward all through the snowdrifts till spring.”

“Can you remember the fire?” I wondered, shivering from potential danger.

“No. I was born the year following. But, some people even now living around here remember it vividly. They were fortunate.”

But how? I lifted the lines over Frank’s hind quarters and let them fall. Dangers abounded: a runaway horse, terror-driven in town, had injured more than one person. A fire in the fireplace was a friend indeed; but a runaway forest fire could be a fearful menace. Pictures of forests ablaze lit up my recollection. Pictures of Russia in winter arose too, showing a pack of wolves chasing a man in a cutter, who, standing up, lashed a three-horse hitch to try to escape the wolf pack. We were getting closer to the twelfth line, and a corner where flat rock gave way to sand. Some sad spruce had formed a copse there, and were in competition with batty juniper bushes and a strand of rusted barbed wire, and my internal fears of forest fires and runaways was lifting; but, one more question had me in a grip. Although I knew this was not the Wolves’ Grove Road, I had to ask anyway “Are there wolves in the Burnt Lands now?”

My father laughed a little. “No,” he assured me, “Not now.”

I shook the lines to let Frank know the path was clear: no wolves lay behind the scrub spruce, or hid in spear grass.

If the Burnt Lands were mid-ocean in the Sea of Observation, my powers of observation had only begun. There was a long way to go yet.

We came to the twelfth line and Frank veered half-left. Having set aside dangers from white-fang and forest fire, I felt relief, and that set me to wondering again. Should I turn round, just once, from the buggy seat and look back over this stretch of Burnt Lands? Just to be sure?

I swung round on the buggy seat. My eyes switched from under overhanging spruce boughs to juniper clumps and sifted through long stringy grass. And back again. Thrice.

“Are you looking for something special?” my father asked.

“I was wonderin’ about something,” I said.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Did you ever see a rabbit on the Burnt Lands carrying a lunch pail?”

“Not yet,” he replied. “On the other hand, anything is possible. Oh, we turn in here.”

I rubbed my eyes and swung round. I had to squint.

John Dunn
26 Apr 99