Requiem: moving mountains #1

There were 4 of us, ages 11-13. I was eldest, there for the summer. The younger kids were my two uncles and my aunt. (I know – hill people.) We had climbed onto the roof of the wagon shed. The corrugated tin was hot under our feet. There had been a dance down at the hall the night before. It was too wonderful to let go, so we were putting on a show. We had sneaked out the potato masher and a wooden spoon for microphones. I was singing, “South of the border, down Mexico way’. Evelyn was backup because, honestly, she couldn’t carry a tune. Ted was on air guitar, twanging away and Percy was battering the roof with 2 sticks. I got to the sad part, “The mission bells told me that I could not stay.”

Hereford Mountain hunched over behind the corn field and the Old Place.

I was happy, really happy.

“Whaaat?” my grandmother screeched as she came around the corner. “Get down from there before you break your necks. And give me the masher. I need it. The men will be back for dinner.”

Mountains don’t move, not even for Mohammed. Hills don’t give up farming to find work in a steel mill. Hereford Mountain is still there, although it has a bike trail up from the East Hereford side. There’s a new vacation house out back of Bungee, snugged up under the mountain’s shoulder. The road to this dead-end has been improved. There is a pond.

But Hereford is gone.

The 10 farms that climbed up from river valley are turned into tree plantations or rental properties. The sunny hay fields are now mostly dark and foreboding, thick with tall spruce. Perhaps some dairy farmer out from the prosperous wide valley is still taking hay from the old Owen place.

Those hills were great for farming stone. They yielded an excellent crop every spring, but never more than one crop of hay. The top soil was thin having been scraped off and washed into the valley. The Owens who came to Plymouth on the Hopewell, 3 ships after the Mayflower, had too many surviving sons. My great great (about 1825) migrated north to these bony hills and set to work chopping down trees and hefting stones, starving and working themselves to death.

I joined them in 1936, arriving in a tiny backwoods house -out around the Horn- with no electricity, running water or telephone. No horse but shanks’ mare. A woodstove in the kitchen. The good news was that my father had worked at pulp logging all winter and saved up $18 for the doctor to deliver me. He brought ‘twilight sleep’ for my hysterical 19-year-old mother. My Aunt Mae, perfectly capable of delivering a baby and possibly more adept than the doctor and his bag, stood by. All she had by way of anesthetic was raspberry tea, laughter and Jesus.

The last time I went back was 8 years ago, a birthday treat for my younger sister, Georgia, on her 70th. We stayed at the Ayres Cliff Inn as if we were rich people. On the way home to Toronto, we realized we could not go back. One of us had a back spasm and both of us never wanted to get behind the wheel of a car again.

Last weekend, Georgia, thanks to DNA testing and Facebook found Julie, whose mother Rose grew up on the hill. Thus I learned that the only survivor of the people I knew is Rose’s 97-year-old father. One or two of my Aunt Mae’s grandsons may still be there, but I didn’t know them. All my mother’s 6 siblings are gone. Most had died in Ontario where she had, and of cancer as she had. They had all worked in steel or aluminum. Evelyn and Ted had crossed the border to work in the U.S. They had been born there in 1937 in a hospital because of the risk with twins. I had felt Ted was gone, but not Evelyn, yet she had in 2013. The last of the old people, the previous generation, Julie’s aunt, her husband and his brother, Ron, another Owen uncle, had died since 2019. These were the people I had last contacted. I had learned then that our favourite, Ron had dementia and was in a home.

I left there almost 80 years ago. Or rather, we escaped. Afterwards, we sometimes were hungry but never starved. I wish I could say we left the worst of hill life behind, but I can’t because we still had Dad. Hereford Hill breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone no doubt. Gradually uncles and other folk followed in our tracks and tried to create the good old days, plus readily available booze and the odd mob contract to supplement income.

So this week, as well as facing democracy’s destruction and rising Covid figures, I bade farewell to the beauty and joy and awfulness of hill life. Ave atque vale!

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Richard III: lost and found

On Monday, February 4, 2013, a team of archaeologists and scientists announced the bones found last September under a Leicester parking lot were those of Richard III.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, ruled England from 1482 to 1485, having deposed his 12 year-old nephew, Edward V, whose guardian he was. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the age of 32 by Henry,  Duke of Richmond, who succeeded Richard as Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

The story was that Richard’s naked body flung over a horse was hurriedly taken to the Greyfriars Monastery for an ignominious burial, but the monastery had long since ceased to exist and the Richard’s last resting place was lost to memory. Members of the Richard III society researched the location of the monastery and came up with its location in the council car park in Leicester. Excavation revealed two bodies, one in a cramped grave showed signs of severe scoliosis and a fatal wound at the base of the skull. Richard III was known to have suffered a spinal deformity, which caused him to be hunch-backed and so, excitement grew.

Carbon dating of 2 ribs indicated that the bones were roughly 500 years old and further examination that they were of a man in his late 20s or early 30’s. Richard died at 32. A tooth was extracted for DNA testing and proved to have a rare mitochondrial DNA sequence, found in a very small percentage of people. Painstakingly, the chromosome sequence was restructured and eventually tested against 2 of Richard’s relatives, one of them a Canadian 17th-great nephew.  The results identified the bones as being Richard’s.

More of the story emerged as the week went on, somewhat to the discredit of Henry or possibly of his ill-controlled soldiers. A halberd, a long pike-like weapon with a spear-like point and an axe below it, had sliced through the base of his skull. (source National Post, Thu. Feb 7, 2013) There was a dent in his skull, probably resulting from a fall while wearing his helmet. A smaller cut at the base of his skull, also a fatal blow, was caused by a sword. There was a knife cut on his lower jaw, possibly caused when his helmet was lost. (He had, famously, already lost his horse: “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse”.) A small hole in the top of his head was probably caused by an arrow. There was a knife wound on his cheekbone. A cut mark on a rib may have been caused by a knife post mortem. He seems to have been stabbed in the right buttock, an insult injury after his armour was removed.  His hands were crossed suggesting that they had been tied. The feet bones were missing possibly because a 19th century outhouse had been built close to the grave and almost destroyed it. There was no evidence of a shroud or other covering.

The article in the National Post cited above speculates that the spinal deformity may have originated at puberty. My Encyclopedia of World History (Ed. Wm. Langer) describes Richard as able, a good soldier and skilled at winning public support. Evidently, he was also good at losing it if the pile-on at his death is any evidence.

There are 2 views of Richard. Shakespeare gives us one, painting him as an assassin and manipulator who killed Edward and his younger brother in the Tower of London. Had them killed, that is as well as his own brother Clarence who stood between him and the throne. A more positive view is presented by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time. I will consider these 2 views in an upcoming post.