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Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize History

By 49thShelf
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The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize (formerly the Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction) has been awarded since 1997. How many of these past winners have you read?
Small Mercies

Small Mercies

A Boy After War
also available: Hardcover
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Following The Way of A Boy, Small Mercies brings us back to Ernest Hillen as a boy, what he thought and felt as he, and the whole world, struggled to recover and grow up. After two remarkable sea voyages, he eventually lands in Canada where his mother is reunited with her family after sixteen years. In Canada he learns about school, baseball, vanilla milkshakes, and snow. He begins to discover what it means to be a man, but adapting to a new language and country is not easy. A memoir about the j …

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Stolen Life

Stolen Life

The Journey of a Cree Woman

The powerful, major book, acclaimed across Canada, from the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Big Bear and by Rudy Wiebe, twice winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction. 

This is a story about justice, and terrible injustices, a story about a murder, and a courtroom drama as compelling as any thriller as it unravels the events that put Yvonne Johnson behind bars for life, first in Kingston's Federal Prison for Women until the riot that closed it, and later in the Okimaw Ochi Healing Lo …

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Prefatory Note

This book is based on what Yvonne Johnson holds to be her own truths about the life she has lived. However, since there is never only one way to tell a story, other persons involved in this one may well have experienced and remember differently the events and actions here portrayed. The book is also based on my research into the circumstances of Yvonne’s life. Besides over five years of dialogue with her, this research involved travel to various places crucial to the story; interviews wherever possible; attendance at trials; and the gathering of data from court, police, government, school, and newspaper records in both Canada and the United States.

I have gathered together Yvonne’s words, as given in the present text, as she and I agreed, from various sources: largely her seventeen black prison notebooks, her letters to me, her comments on official records and documents, her statements to police, my notes of our conversations in person or on the telephone, numerous audiotapes. She has a natural gift of language, which at any moment will follow a detail and widen into incident, story, often humour. This was at first sometimes confusing, even disorienting, until I recognized that her thinking was often circular, revolving around a given subject, and her writing almost oral in the sense that I had to catch the tone of her inflection to understand exactly how the incidents she was remembering connected; where the expanding images or even parables with which she tried to explain herself were leading. These qualities can only be fully appreciated when talking with Yvonne face to face, but I hope this book will give its readers a good flavour of such a conversation.

What is remarkable and enlightening is how Yvonne’s powers of writing have expanded during her time in prison. Her first letter to me (November, 1992, quoted at length in the first chapter) was as chatty as her talk still is; her formal education could, at best, barely be called erratic and ended in Grade Eight, but even in the earliest of her writing that I have seen she had a profound ability to capture an astute perception with words. For example, during her trial in March, 1991, she handed to her lawyer a long analysis of a relative, which included this comment:

“She is a woman of many faces. . . . You know, the only feelings you get from her is one of her faces. One of her strong feelings is fear, anger. And she has a tongue like a knife in your heart.”

Reading has helped her think and write. By 1998, after years of reading widely and deeply–including the works of Carl Jung, some of whose books she read and re-read while making copious notes–and thousands of pages of writing–by pen, typewriter, computer–Yvonne’s imagistic insights have widened into longer, much more coherent explorations and descriptions. The written language of her perceptions and her natural oral story-telling ability have grown immensely, to become acute, distinctive, and often beautiful.

The selection, compiling, and arrangement of events and details in this book were done in a manner the two authors believe to be honest and accurate. Public documents are quoted selectively, but with every attempt at fairness and accuracy.

The actual names of people are used when their identities are a matter of public record; for others, and in the case of all persons at present minors, the names are pseudonyms. Also, the spelling, punctuation, and grammar in Yvonne’s letters and notebooks have been standardized.

— Rudy Wiebe, Edmonton, April 1998


O Creator of all, I pray you, look at me, for I am weak and pitiful.

I pray,
help me to make amends to all those I have harmed;
grant them love and peace, so that they may understand I am sorry;
help me to share my shame and pain, so that others
will do the same, and so awaken to themselves
and to all the peoples of the world.

Hai hai

Yvonne Johnson, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, April 1998


Blood Runs

Thick and Long

and For Ever

Nothing just happens, my friend, unless it was meant to be. . . . If we are guided under the Bear, then even our futures can be changed. . . . You and I may have been chosen long ago to meet, and our past has given us each a gift of understanding.
— Yvonne Johnson to Rudy Wiebe, 24 December 1992

To begin a story, someone in some way must break a particular silence. On Wednesday, 18 November 1992, in Edmonton, Alberta, I received an envelope from Box 515, Kingston, Ontario. Inside, folded into quarters, was a long sheet of paper typed from top to bottom, edge to edge, solid with words on both sides. It began:

Howdy Howdy Stranger
My name is Yvonne Johnson. I am currently an inmate at the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. I am thirty-one years old. I am a Cree from Saskatchewan, that is where my ancestors come from. We were accepted back into my grandmother’s rez after my mother was kicked out for marrying my father, who is a White from Great Falls, Montana. My grandmother Flora was a Baptiste, my grandfather was called John Bear, I lost him a few years back now; and my grandfather’s grandfather was the Cree chief Big Bear.

On either side of the straight Saskatchewan road, the lines of barbed-wire fence try to square the land into right angles on the curving earth. The land is white here in January 1996, prairie-snow flat, and on this morning frigid fog hides the world; I can see nothing of sun beyond the fence. At the road crossing, where I feel the pavement end, I stop, turn right, and drive south–the Cree direction of the Law of Order, which is the natural order of Creation, the order of how things will happen. I need that today: order.

The road disappears ahead into limitless mist, slopes down a little and east, then straight south again, with all the land now rising about me. Gravel clatters, swerves. White-tailed deer feed above brush on the bare shoulders of a ravine; they will look up only if I stop, probably scatter if I get out, so I continue moving, very slowly. The temperature is twenty-two below, but the deer are spaced delicately at ease, heads bowed to their feeding scrawls in the snowy earth, and when the ravine hides them again I continue my watch into the grey mist, into its brightening; waiting. And then, imperceptibly, the high hills begin to emerge.

They are very nearly upon me, their folded shapes covered with hoar-frosted trees, the mass of the Cypress Hills like immense, furry animals kneeling down tight together, brilliant as spun glass against the sudden blue sky.
The road ahead vanishes again down into mist, then reappears once more, higher, like a question mark up into the hills.

The Stoney people called them pa-ha-toonga, the Thunder-Breeding Hills.

The “Howdy Stranger” letter continued:

I was accepted by the Red Pheasant Reserve south of Battleford, but I do not know where I truly belong. As you may be aware, in 1885 my family and band were spread all over this continent after the imprisonment of Big Bear. I don’t know where to start, or where to go from here, but I have a will and hopefully you can help to guide me somehow. I have been through a lot in the last few years. I don’t have that much education, just what I’ve learned or I think I’ve learned over the years. I try to fake it a lot; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t [. . .].

Well, once again, I am thirty-one and mother of three children and a stepson. I was born in a place called Kalispell, Montana, and raised in Butte, Montana. My brother was killed by the cops there when I was nine and my family, or what of it we had, went all to hell. My mom went on the aim [American Indian Movement] march from Wounded Knee to Washington in 1972 to see if she could get anything done about my brother’s death, but came back empty and soon filed for divorce and said she was going back to her people. I stayed with my father, as no one else would and I could not leave him alone like that. All the other kids, minus the one brother who was in prison, went with my mom to Canada. Me, I was pulled back and forth a lot, as I am born with a cleft palate and lip and only in the United States would the Crippled Children’s Fund pay for the repair I needed. I had a hard life and it keeps getting harder. I think it’s a deep sense of true justice and understanding and of true knowledge I search for that keeps me going.

And believe me, death seems a lot easier and a lot less painful at times, but I guess I truly am a sucker for punishment. What can I say? I still hang in. Well, I just wish my life would change for the better at some point. I don’t want to die this way, with nothing settled or overcome. I need to fight, I need to know where I come from and why our race suffers so from the hands of my White brothers. Just because I went through my first thirty years in silence does not mean I went through it blind and deaf as well. If anything, my silence enhanced my keen sense of observation–had to get the dictionary out for that one. All my luck, I probably copied it wrong! . . .

My mom’s a Cree from a residential school in Sask.; my father is a ex—U.S. Marine of the Norwegian race. My dad was out of the war for a short time when he met my mom, who had also just got out of a hell of her own, the Indian school. Quite a combo, hey? There were seven kids in my family. Anyways, I don’t hold it against them; they tried as best as they knew how. And I love them. I just hate reality, it’s so cruel and unkind. But I hold history responsible for that as well. You see, I’ve spent the last thirty years running from it, but due to imprisonment I was forced to stop running, and that’s so hard.

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The Golden Spruce

The Golden Spruce

A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed
also available: Paperback

The Golden Spruce is the story of a glorious natural wonder, the man who destroyed it, and the fascinating, troubling context in which his act took place.

A tree with luminous glowing needles, the golden spruce was unique, a mystery that biologically speaking should never have reached maturity; Grant Hadwin, the man who cut it down, was passionate, extraordinarily well-suited to wilderness survival, and to some degree unbalanced. But as John Vaillant shows in this gripping and perceptive book, t …

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Prologue: Driftwood

Small things are hard to find in Alaska, so when a marine biologist named Scott Walker stumbled across a wrecked kayak on an uninhabited island fifty kilometres north of the Canadian border, he considered himself lucky. The coastal boundary where Alaska and British Columbia meet and overlap is a jagged four-way seam that joins, not just a pair of vast – and vastly different – countries, but two equally large and divergent wildernesses. To the west is the gaping expanse of the North Pacific Ocean, and to the east is the infinity of mountains that forms the heart of what some in the Northwest call Cascadia. The coastline where these worlds meet and bleed into one another is sparsely inhabited and often obscured by fog, the mountains sheared off by low-lying clouds. At sea level, it is a long and convoluted network of deep fjords, narrow channels, and rock-bound islands. It is a world unto itself, separated from the rest of North America by the Coast Mountains, whose ragged peaks carry snow for most of the year. In some places their westward faces plunge into the sea so abruptly that a boat can be fifteen metres from shore and still have a hundred and fifty metres of water beneath her keel. The region is sporadically patrolled, being governed, for the most part, by seven-metre tides and processions of sub-Arctic storms that spiral down from the Gulf of Alaska to batter the long, tree-stubbled lip of the continent. Even on calm days, the coastline may be shrouded in a veil of mist as three thousand kilometres of uninterrupted Pacific swell pummels itself to vapour against the stubborn shore.

The combination of high winds, frequent fog, and tidal surges that can run over fifteen knots makes this coast a particularly lethal one, and when boats or planes or people go missing here, they are usually gone for good. If they are found, it is often by accident a long time later, and usually in a remote location like Edge Point where Scott Walker anchored his seventeen-foot skiff on a fair June afternoon in 1997 while doing a survey of the local salmon fishery. Edge Point is not so much a beach as an alpine boulder field that, at this point in geologic time, happens to be at sea level. It lies at the southern tip of Mary Island, a low hump of forest and stone that forms one side of a rocky, tide-scoured channel called Danger Passage; the nearest land is Danger Island, and neither place was idly named.

Like much of the Northwest Coast, Edge Point is strewn with driftwood logs and whole trees that may be a metre and a half in diameter and stacked twenty deep. Burnished to silver, this mass of wood, much of which has broken loose from log booms and transport barges, lies heaped as high as polar winds and Pacific waves can possibly throw it. Even if a man-made object should make it ashore here in one piece, it won’t last long after it arrives; within the course of a few tide cycles, it will be hammered to pieces between the heaving logs and the immovable boulders beneath them. In the case of a fibreglass boat – such as a kayak – the destruction is usually so complete that it makes the craft hard to recognize, much less find. When a fibreglass yacht was found in a location similar to Edge Point three years after it had disappeared without issuing a distress signal, the largest surviving piece was half a metre long and that was only because it had been blown up into the bushes; the rest of the sixty-foot sloop had been reduced to fragments the size of playing cards. This is why Scott Walker considered himself fortunate: he wasn’t too late; parts of the kayak might still be salvageable.

The beaches here serve as a random archive of human endeavour where a mahogany door from a fishing boat, the remains of a World War II airplane, and a piece from a fallen satellite are all equally plausible finds. Each artifact carries with it a story, though the context rarely allows for a happy ending; in most cases, it is only the scavenger who benefits. Scott Walker has been scavenging things that others have lost here for more than twenty-five years, and he has acquired an informal expertise in the forensics of flotsam and jetsam. If the found object is potentially useful or sufficiently interesting, and if it is small enough to lift, the beachcomber’s code will apply. Walker was abiding by this code when he happened upon the broken kayak and began tearing it apart for the stainless steel hardware.

But when Walker lifted his head from his work he noticed some things that gave him pause. Strewn farther down the tide line were personal effects: a raincoat, a backpack, an axe – and it was then that it occurred to him that his prize might not have simply washed off some beach or boat dock down the coast. The more he noticed – a cookstove, a shaving kit, a life jacket – the narrower the gap between his own good luck and someone else’s misfortune became. This wasn’t shaping up to be a clean find. Walker deduced from the heavier objects’ position lower down in the intertidal zone that the kayak had washed ashore and broken up on a low tide. The lighter objects, including large pieces of the kayak itself, had been carried farther up the beach by subsequent high tides and wind, and it was these that set off alarm bells in Walker’s head. Despite being wrapped around a log, the sleeping bag was still in near-perfect condition; there were no tears or stains, no fading from the salt and sun; the life jacket, too, looked fresh off the rack. Even the cookstove appeared salvageable; wedged between rocks at the water’s edge, it showed only minor rusting. Winter storm season, the most effective destroyer on the coast, had only just ended, so this wreck had to be recent, thought Walker, perhaps only a couple of weeks old. He debated throwing the stove and sleeping bag into his skiff, but then, after considering some possible accident scenarios and recalculating the uncomfortable distance between a stranger’s horror and his own delight, he decided to leave these things where they lay. Besides, he thought, they might be needed for evidence. No one would miss the stainless steel bolts, though, so he pocketed them and headed down the beach, looking for a body.

Walker never found one, and it was only through the Alaska state troopers in Ketchikan, fifty kilometres to the north, that he learned the story behind his chance discovery. The kayak and its owner, a Canadian timber surveyor and expert woodsman named Grant Hadwin, had been missing – not for weeks, but for months. This man, it seemed, was on the run, wanted for a strange and unprecedented crime.

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Long Shadows

Long Shadows

Truth, Lies and History
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Award-winning writer Erna Paris chronicles her journey over four continents into the shifting terrain of war and memory. Combining gripping storytelling with insight and sharp observation, Paris takes us to places of reckoning – be they courtrooms or concentration camps – and finds hope in the way ordinary people grapple with the conflicts of our time: the aftermath of World War II in Japan, slavery in the U.S., apartheid in South Africa, and the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany and France …

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The Stone of Sisyphus

A stench of sewage pollutes the streets of East Berlin; exposed wires dangle ominously; uncollected garbage spills into sunless, dilapidated courtyards. The graffiti scrawled across walls speaks of uneasy transition layer upon layer of a still-stratified past. "Nazi lives here!" accuses one notice painted on an apartment building. "Attack fascism!" orders another. "Defend squatters' rights!" commands a third. The developers from the West are moving in, juxtaposing restored nineteenth-century facades and modern cubes of steel and glass with the decrepit cinderblock construction of the German Democratic Republic. Some of the residents are angry.

But the development frenzy cannot silence the airy whisperings of unquiet ghosts that can be heard, should one care to listen, in the hundreds of empty spaces that pockmark the city: in memory holes that have never been plugged, either by choice, in order to mark the terror of the Nazi era, or by default, as in the East, where the continuing presence of bombed-out structures and vacant lots was for decades useful anti-fascist propaganda.

It is these whisperings I have come to hear, these memory holes I have come to explore. And finally, after months of planning, I have arrived in the country that has for years been a source of personal uneasiness. Ever since I first realized the magnitude of the Holocaust and understood my own life as part of a swell of survival I am the daughter of Canadian-born Jewish parents Germany has felt forbidding and ominous. In the 1960s, when I was inexperienced and ignorant of history, I crossed the border from France into Germany several times to visit Freiburg, in the region of the Black Forest a city that charmed me. That was before I visited Natzweiler-Struthof, the Nazi death camp in the nearby Vosges mountains; in any case, I was young enough then to feel closer to the Brothers Grimm than to Auschwitz. And I had not been back in the country since.

Now it is 1997, and I have learned over the years, in excruciating detail, what happened here between 1933 and 1945 and struggled to understand how and why. Part of this exploration has been about memory about how calamitous events, such as the Holocaust, are shaped in the collective story of perpetrator nations, how ordinary people remember and what they tell their children. I have come here with the understanding of one who has studied the facts and now seeks deeper answers.

My plan is to start in Berlin in East Berlin, to be precise, where the old Jewish community of the city used to live and then to travel in search of the memories and the whisperings. Here in Germany, as elsewhere, some of my itinerary is planned and some is not. People tell me things. Or I just follow my nose.

Memory: the pre-war Jews of Berlin once the centre of German-Jewish life were deported long ago, but in an indefinable way their vibrant world remains both occult and palpably evident. Thanks to Joel Levy, a former American diplomat who now heads the German branch of the Ronald E. Lauder Foundation, which funds the reconstruction of Jewish life in Europe, I am staying in a partially rebuilt, once-famous building, the Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger Strasse in the erstwhile East, that feels to me like the epicentre of that peculiar ambiguity. When Levy invited me to stay here, in one of two or three available guest rooms, I accepted with alacrity: I thought rightly, as it turns out that I would not get much closer to the past than in a place that housed so many ghosts.

The Neue Synagoge was built in 1866, with thirty-two hundred seats, and for seventy years this stately palace-like synagogue embodied the excitement and bourgeois pride of the new Jewish Reform movement, which had embraced the modernity of the Enlightenment by casting off the embarrassing, outmoded forms of orthodoxy that differentiated Jews from their fellow Germans. In the Neue Synagoge, Jews practised their religion just as their compatriots, who happened to be Lutherans, practised theirs. They were proud Germans of the Jewish persuasion. But the synagogue was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War, and for the next fifty years, the charred ruins were left untouched by the East German government (along with other destroyed buildings), as presumed evidence of Western, fascist brutality: until 1988, that is, when the German Democratic Republic (GDR) entered its final death throes. That was the year Communist Party chief Erich Honecker promised to help finance the reconstruction of the famous landmark. (Since he was about to leave for a visit to the United States, he might have been hoping the gesture would help him overseas.) The government in Bonn also contributed funds, and the building's foundations were redone. Then, on November 9, 1988, on the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht the night the yellow-red flames of burning Jewish homes and businesses illuminated the Berlin night sky a commemoration was held at the partially reassembled site.

That the reconstruction was merely partial seems deliberate and symbolic like a Japanese haiku that forces the reader, or in this case the visitor, to imagine the rest. Half recalled, blurred, wispy, irretrievable, the building is here yet not quite here; it exists, and parts of it are once again in use, but it is now manifestly a museum and a pointer to the past. There is also a notable police presence, which unintentionally evokes both past and present. Every time I leave or re-enter the building, I pass through a metal detector and show my passport to the same suspicious-looking guards, who seem never to recognize me. A plaque to Kristallnacht on the outside wall attracts a steady stream of passers-by: they stop to read with looks of consternation on their faces. Before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, few West Germans knew this place.

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Time Lord

Time Lord

tagged : time

This is the biography of an idea, and the remarkable story of the man who created—and then convinced the world to adopt—a unified standard for telling time.

Today we take the accurate telling of time across the world for granted. Yet little more than a hundred years ago, people even in neighbouring towns lived by different time schedules: noon was simply whenever the sun happened to be overhead—Toronto time, for example, was different from Hamilton time some forty miles away. None of this m …

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The Discovery of Time

An obvious question demands to be answered from the outset: Can anyone have a definition of time? Time is invisible and indescribable, endlessly fascinating and universally compelling. Time is everywhere; thus nowhere. It animates the world, yet nothing survives it. We can only guess how it started, or when it will end. It is our intimate assassin. One thing it lacks, however, except in Greek myth, is a compelling narrative.

Natural time—the time of the gods, the sun and the moon—starts in a savage, glorious myth and ends on an Irish railway platform in 1876, when Sandford Fleming missed his train. Originally, Time was embodied in a god, Uranus. He ruled over an immutable world. His children were the seven visible planets. Acting on a prophecy that his life was in danger from one of them, Uranus did the natural thing and slaughtered them all. Their mother, his sister Gaia, was able to hide one son, Kronos. Kronos, upon maturity, did the natural thing—castrated and killed his father. He married his sister, Rhea. When he learned of a plot against him, he cannibalized his children, but for Zeus, whose sleeping body Rhea had replaced with a stone. Zeus, of course, would castrate and kill his father.

Time is a bloodthirsty savage. None of us gets out alive, regardless of piety, decency, beauty, or innocence. But Zeus, at least, made it tolerable by setting the clock of mortality and mutability. We die, but we are replaced. Our children do supplant us; and they bury us. They can't admit it, but they want their parents dead. And parents can't admit it, but they want their children forever helpless and dependent. So long as they remain babies, we stay in our virile prime. Their maturing is our death. Mutability saves us from unthinkable violence, at the cost of our own life. I can't imagine a more ethically charged dilemma.

The powers of Time were scattered. Different gods attended to prophecy, history, fate, and dreams. Priestly castes learned the natural periodicities of the days, months, and years and determined rituals and sacrifices required for harvests, protection from floods, and return of the rains. Natural time is cyclical, a closed system, not admitting to change. Gods of the natural world are mysterious, unknowable, and violent. Any variation in worship might—or might not—bring instant death.

The collapse of "natural" thinking was most sudden, and most dramatic, in England. It was in England that the Romantic embrace of nature reached doctrinal intensity, where rambles in the Lake District inspired poetry, where the great and permanent forms of nature were invoked as guides in time of crisis and despair. One thinks of nature’s power not only to soothe but to inspire reveries of timelessness, as in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (1818). But England soon embraced the Industrial Revolution with even deeper fervor, so that within little more than a generation, the nation had been transformed into a virtual laboratory for creative destruction. Thirty years after Keats's ode, in The Communist Manifesto, time became cheaper than sand, not dearer than gold, a servant, not a master. It could be leased back to an employer at a fair rate and for a set duration, or even confiscated by the proposed new state on the behalf of labor. The social structure and the political order were transformed, but not by Marx and Engels. The revolutionary agent was speed, the new velocity introduced by trains and the telegraph. If industrialism and rationality teach anything, it is that nothing is permanent, especially nothing found in nature. There is no "natural" law. Displaying gratitude for the gods' gift of time became less important than showing up punctually for a day's work and collecting a guaranteed wage at the end of the week. Standard time, which also arrived in Britain in 1848, is the ultimate expression of human control over the apparently random forces of nature.

writers who find themselves fascinated by some aspect of time usually confess their inadequacy, or their confusion, by invoking St. Augustine's famous admission in his Confessions. It reads in essence: "I know what time is, but when I try to describe it, I cannot." That leaves quite an opening for anyone who would rise to the challenge. The English historian Simon Schama, in the opening of Landscape and Memory, speaks directly to the issue:

For a small boy with his head in the past, Kipling's fantasy [Puck of Pook's Hill] was potent magic. Apparently, there were some places in England where, if you were a child (in this case Dan or Una), people who had stood on the same spot centuries before would suddenly and inexplicably materialize. With Puck's help you could time-travel by standing still. On Pook's Hill, lucky Dan and Una got to chat with Viking warriors, Roman centurions, Norman knights, and then went home for tea.

The American physicist George Smoot, combining astrophysics with autobiography, begins his Wrinkles in Time on a simpler note: "There is something about looking at the night sky that makes a person wonder." A few sentences later, he brings that childhood wonder up to date:

I could discover not only new things, like ponds and tadpoles, but I could also find out what caused things to happen, how they happened, and how things fit together. For me it was like walking into a dark museum and turning on a light. There were incredible treasures to behold.

Fiction writers attracted to time can only envy historians and astronomers. Time, after all, is their raw material. Novelists are no less wonder-struck, no less time-besotted, and no less driven to fit things together, but their tool is the story, the actors and plot. Their approach lies closer to the way of sociology and psychiatry (or perhaps forensic science), stopping time, fragmenting it, backing it up, moving it forward, examining the pieces. Time lacks that narrative base, it is so nebulous that it might evade definition all together, by anyone. "Time is like Oakland," the sociologist Murray Davis once said, echoing Gertrude Stein, "there's no then there."

First of all, time comes in two distinct varieties: the untamed, mysterious Time, born with the big bang itself, and civil, obedient standard time, as in "What time is it?" or "How long has this been going on?" It's not clear that the same word even applies to both, or what the nature of their relationship, if any, might be. Perhaps time should have two names, like "horse" and "equus," the one to stand for hardworking, domesticated time, that which we control and can describe—the calendars, clocks, minutes and hours of the civil day—and the other for the untamed and unnamable, that which nature has not yet released.

The cesium-ion atomic clock is so accurate that it "loses" only one second every ten thousand years, and even that exact standard is open to further precision. It divides each second into more than twenty billion pulses. But what exactly is it dividing, what is it measuring, what is a second, what is a minute? And if we "lose" it, where does it go? When basketball games are won or lost in the final seconds, or when downhill ski races and Olympic dashes are decided by tenths, hundredths, thousandths, or ten-thousandths of a second, are we honoring accuracy or exposing the arbitrary nature of measurement, the meta-measuring of measurement itself? It seems apparent that some contests are not won or lost in head-to-head competition, but in the anachronism of relying on a starter's pistol, our inability to mark a true beginning—or, in terms of this book, our failure to fix a proper prime meridian. A smart lawyer could argue that a runner lined up in an outer lane, twenty yards away from the starter's pistol, hears it a significant thousandth of a second later than a runner five or six lanes closer.

The irony is inescapable. Ever-finer precision creates ever-widening ambiguity. The nineteenth century's faith in rationality led supremely confident rationalists in anthropology, sociology, and psychology to study the presumptions behind civilization, or reason itself. Only confident rationalists could explore the irrational, but once they got there, what they discovered undermined the confidence that had got them there in the first place. Enthusiastic evolutionists, as most late-Victorian scientists were, believed they’d been given a key to understanding far more than the origin of species. They saw evolution as applying to history, society, economics, to God, the cosmos, language and logic and the mind itself. Thomas Henry Huxley, the great apostle of Victorian science, believed, in 1887, that applied evolutionary theory would deliver a unified explanation of everything—biology, physics, chemistry, and religion. In 1879, Leslie Stephen, introducing the essays and lectures of his polymathic classmate William Clifford, who had died tragically young of tuberculosis that year, recalled their undergraduate enthusiasm for rationalism in all fields:

Clifford was not content with merely giving his assent to the doctrine of evolution; he seized on it as a living spring of action, a principle to be worked out, practised upon, used to win victories over nature, and to put new vigour into speculation. Natural Selection was to be the master key of the universe; we expected it to solve all riddles and reconcile all contradictions. Among other things it was to give us a new system of ethics, combining the exactness of the utilitarian with the poetical ideals of the transcendentalist.

Two years after writing this, a formidable presence appeared in Leslie Stephen's life, his daughter Virginia. She would grow up just as High Victorian certainties were yielding to doubt. Her generation would devote their creative lives to the refutation of nearly all the comforting, steady-state theories of consciousness they'd ingested in their privileged, progressive childhoods. The scientific and material advances that gave leaders of the Victorian establishment, like Leslie Stephen, their faith in reason became a pompous culture of confidence to Edwardian progressives like H. G. Wells, and a target of ridicule for Oscar Wilde. A generation later, Lytton Strachey, D. H. Lawrence, and Leslie Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf saw their complacency as a pathology of posturing.

The thing we call time, in other words, is very difficult to disentwine from the ways we measure it, from language, social convention, or the internal clock of our DNA. It cannot be described in terms outside of itself. It is, as St. Augustine discovered, a tautology. Many things are like time, but time is only like itself. What can be described, however, is the history of standard time, clock-and-calendar time, the man-made system of time-reckoning. The great achievement of standardization in the nineteenth century, culminating with the Prime Meridian Conference in 1884, was to rationalize “real time” over thousand-mile (or fifteen-degree) zones, and to give it a starting line, Greenwich, agreed to by all. Thanks to standardization, we had the man-made tools to calculate that New York’s four o’clock was simultaneously Chicago’s three o’clock, London’s nine o’clock or Sydney’s . . . whatever. (At least, we know how to figure it out.)

It is useful, of course, to know what the "real" time is in other parts of the world when we make telephone calls and run the risk of waking up real people from real sleep, though it hardly matters to e-mailers or stock-traders. Standard time as we’ve inherited it is the final great achievement of Victorian rationality; unreformed, it is vulnerable to the same forces that swept away other golden keys to understanding. (I can't imagine that twenty or thirty years from now we will still be computing time on a foundation that we’ve inherited, unchanged, from the age of steam.) Adjusting to new time will be like learning a new language, perhaps very much like learning a new language, if we're hard-wired with space-time coordinates, as Immanuel Kant originally proposed, or as some modern followers of Noam Chomsky might endorse.

time has only one visible analogue, and that is space. For Fleming, leader of the standard-time movement in the late nineteenth century and a trained surveyor, time and longitude were interchangeable. He even devised elaborate new watch-faces to prove his point. A glance at the outer wheel of longitudinal letters would give the time, and the inner wheel of clock numbers would disclose the longitude.

In 1860, when he was then a thirty-three-year-old surveyor and civil engineer, the University of Toronto selected him as external examiner for the first-year course in Surveying and Geodesy. John Sang would have been proud. The test he set bears a close resemblance to his own apprenticeship as a teenager in Scotland:

1. Give a general description of a theodolite, its construction, and the uses of its essential parts.

2. What is understood by the line of collimation, and how is the error of collimation detected and corrected?

3. Describe the construction and uses of an optical square.

4. Describe generally one or more methods of conducting a trigonometrical survey and protracting the same, also the instruments employed in the field and office.

5. Explain the principle of the vernier.

6. State how the latitude of a place is ascertained.

7. What is understood by magnetic variation, as well as by the changes in the variation?

8. Give a description of one or more methods by which a true meridian may be determined, pointing out the comparative advantages of each method in practice.

9. Point out how the longitude is formed.

10. From the following bearings and distances, protract the figure, prove the accuracy of the bearings, correct the error, if any, and find the approximate area: [a six-sided figure was given].

11. A solid has two parallel ends 128 feet apart; the area of one end is 450 square feet; that of the other 270 square feet; find the number of cubic yards it contains by the prismoidal formula, and by any other method.

In many ways, Fleming's surveying test of 1860, conceived to judge ability in the measurement of space, applies equally well to time. A vernier (named for its French inventor), incidentally, is a kind of gauge, analogous to the second hand on a watch, that can be attached to a larger measuring instrument in order to provide an instant readout of more precise divisions of distance. The theodolite, then as now, is the basic instrument of surveying and civil engineering. Mounted on a tripod and precisely leveled, it measures vertical and horizontal angles. When the "lines of collimation" are connected, uneven surfaces are converted into a precisely rendered grid. In 1860, determining one's precise geographical location was a thoroughly rational profession. Temporal positioning, by contrast, was still arrived at by solar approximation. Before the decade had ended, in 1869, the first tentative proposal for linking time and longitude—that is, for rationalizing the dimensions of time and space—would be launched.

The surveyors' instruments have their great and small applications, from establishing the earth's longitudes and building railways, to determining property lines. They have analogies to timekeeping. Verniers and theodolites date from the sixteenth century, and both were in Fleming’s trunk carried from Scotland. When John Sang and his sons were forced to sell their instruments in a bankruptcy proceeding, they were giving up the tools of their identity.

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Houseboat Chronicles

Houseboat Chronicles

Notes from a Life in Shield Country
tagged : adventure, boating

This is the story of Jake MacDonald’s discovery of some of the last wild places in North America. The Precambrian Shield extends from the Arctic, across much of eastern Canada, and south into the United States. When Jake was still a boy, his father built a cottage in Manitoba. It was here that Jake developed a hankering to live in wild places, and why he decided to quit his graduate studies and explore the distant corners of the continent in a second-hand van.

First he worked as a guide, then a …

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Virtual Clearcut

Virtual Clearcut

Or, The Way Things Are in My Hometown
also available: eBook

In the Bowron River valley of British Columbia, there is a logging clearcut so vast that astronauts can see it. Sixty kilometers to the northwest lies Prince George, a once-thriving city of 80,000 that has experienced an accelerating 40-year virtual clearcut that has slashed through the strata of its economic and social culture, wiping out its locally- owned businesses and industries, demoralizing its public institutions and its local politics, and creating a psychological quagmire of entertainm …

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The Second Tree

The Second Tree

Of Clones, Chimeras and Quests for Immortality
tagged :

The Second Tree documents a biological revolution that will change the way you think about the material world, your own life and even the inevitability of your own death

Genetic scientists are busily pushing back the boundaries of the humanly possible, climbing the branches of a tree of life that has been grafted by man, not God. Elaine Dewar chronicles the lives, the discoveries, and the feuds among modern biologists, exploring how they have crafted the tools to alter human evolution. She travel …

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. . . the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.
The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed. And from the ground, the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad . . .
When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths . . .
And the Lord God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.

—Tanakh, Genesis 2 and 3


This book, like a clone thrown up from a lilac bush, grew from another. I was working on a project about the origins of the first people to inhabit the Americas when I was introduced to a brand new set of ideas — the use of genetics to trace the movements of people over thousands of years. Anthropologists claimed that the DNA handed down to us from our mothers and grandmothers, all the way back to Eve, can tell us where we came from.

I had learned what little I knew of biology and genetics in high school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, thirty-five years earlier. I don’t count a first-year university general science course that included four weeks of biology. I was so nervous at the lab test that I broke a specimen slide under a microscope. I failed the test, but freed myself from my suicidal plan to go to medical school. In high school, in my day, biology was all about divisions. We sliced the study of living things into botany and zoology. We committed to memory the classification scheme into which eighteenth-century biologists had pigeonholed life in its wondrous variety. We drew pictures of plant cells and their internal structures, and of single-celled animals and their organs. We tiptoed gingerly past Darwin’s evolution theory, to avoid raising the wrath of any fundamentalists lurking among us. There was no discussion of the molecules that living things are made of, even though the field known as molecular biology had made vast strides since 1953, when James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick made a model showing how deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the gene-carrying molecule, is put together. In biology class, the high point of the year was when we got to dissect a frog. My bench mates and I shredded our frog’s muscle and skin in what can only be described as a hormone-fueled frenzy. (What we did with the frog’s eyes should never, ever be recounted.)

Genetics, invented by the monk Gregor Mendel to describe the way various traits are passed to the next generation (from both parents, but randomly — some dominating, some hidden), was dealt with mainly in guidance class. We endured this class, pinned under the stern gaze of a freckled, balding and dour man who perched habitually on the front edge of his desk, banging his artificial leg against it for emphasis. We thought we were there to learn about how to be adults, but discussion of the basics, like sex, was mainly forbidden; I was kicked out for putting forth the radical notion that people might want to have sex before marriage to find out if they are compatible.

Our instructor seemed to think we needed to know human genetics, but he taught it as if it were eugenics. Genetics concerns the expressions and mutations of particular inherited characteristics, embodied as genes. Eugenics proposes that people are like corn or flies, that complex human traits are passed on in the same way as the wrinkled-skin trait is among peas. Eugenics proposes to weed out our bad traits, such as impulsiveness or violent temper, while encouraging the good, such as Christian kindness or high intelligence, through selective breeding. My guidance teacher mainly warned that inbreeding is dangerous and had led, in the isolation and ignorance of the American backwoods, to whole families of drooling, feeble-minded moral degenerates. The names of these unworthies? The Kallikaks and the Jukes, whose unfortunate pairings and unacceptable children, as well as their brushes with the law, had been recorded by the Eugenics Record Office of Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in the early part of the twentieth century.1 Of course, by the time I took guidance, the Eugenics Record Office had long since closed in disgrace (although not before it influenced some thirty U.S. states to adopt laws regarding who was unfit to have children). The Record Office founders were soon forgotten by polite society, along with any notion that eugenics is a science.

Yet our teacher thought eugenics was an obvious extension of the work of Darwin and Mendel. He was not alone. Next door in Alberta, there were still eugenics laws on the books, long after the obedient servants of the Nazi eugenics rules were declared at Nuremberg to be perpetrators of crimes against humanity. I was certainly aware of the trial of Nazi doctors and of the judgments at Nuremberg when I was in high school, but not that the Alberta government’s Eugenics Board was still overseeing the forcible (and in one case illegal) sterilization of the intellectually challenged.2 The high point in guidance class occurred on the last day of the last year of high school, when we were freed from it forever.

I avoided thinking about genetics/eugenics for many years, until I began to research a book on Native American origins. I was then confronted with scientists’ belief that one can trace a human population’s movements by comparing mitochondrial DNA gathered from the living with that from the dead. Scientists doing this work assert that there are patterns of change in this DNA that are distinctive enough to show relationships of descent. This was terrain I’d never traversed before. I knew that mitochondria in a cell do something that fuels each cell’s operations — I knew it because I looked it up in my daughter’s high school biology textbook. But until then I’d thought that human DNA is found only in the nucleus of a cell, as part of a chromosome. I had no idea that these mitochondria are circular strings of DNA floating within the larger structure of the cell, that they also carry genes, or information, from one generation of cells to the next, just like the DNA locked in chromosomes.

Changes in the structure of these mitochondria happen mainly by mutation, not by sexual recombination, as is the case for DNA inside a cell’s nucleus. (Did you know that when human sperm and egg combine, the chromosomes of both literally line up side by side, like to like, and swap pieces of themselves with each other?) Such a mutation occurs spontaneously in the order of DNA’s base pairs. These are the smaller molecules that hold the larger DNA macromolecule together as if they were rungs on a ladder. These base pairs carry information: their order, or the sequence in which they are arrayed along the whole molecule, amounts to a code for the creation of proteins, which do the cell’s work. When any cell divides, each chromosome, and each mitochondrion, is copied. But every time a copy is made, there is a chance for error. These smaller base-pair molecules can break away and be lost, or multiple copies can be made instead of only one. These accidental changes are then passed on from mother cell to daughter cell, and eventually from mother to child, and so on, down through the generations. Since mitochondrial DNA does not cross over when sperm meets egg, it keeps its base-pair sequence essentially unchanged over many generations, so these mutations can be used as markers to show relationships.

I was surprised to learn that mitochondrial DNA probably originated in a bacterium that somehow became incorporated into an ancient cell — the very distant ancestor of all the cells of which we are made. In other words, human beings do not descend in a straight line from one single cell: we are the fused product of two. In our most basic nature, we are what biologists call “chimeras.” We are made up of trillions of cells that grow from the division of one fertilized egg cell, but each cell (except for blood cells) has two different information systems, one immense and complex, the other — the mitochondria — small and simple.

Yes, I had to look up chimera. The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the origins of this word as being from Greek mythology, as follows:

1. Monster with lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail. 2. Bogy, thing of hybrid character; fanciful conception, hence chimerical . . . 3. (Biol.) Organism formed by grafting etc. from tissues of different genetic origin . . .

So many questions boiled up. What did the Greeks know about the origins of life that inspired them to weave the fusion of unlikes into their founding stories? How exactly does the information system of one organism penetrate another? How is it possible that two separate systems can learn to work together so intimately? Is there a larger pattern that coordinates them? Where is that larger pattern written in our cells? Is this the ghost in the machine, what religious people call an immortal soul?

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