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Backwoods of Canada
Letter 12

"A Logging Bee."--Burning of the Log-heaps.--Crops for the Season.--Farming Stock.--Comparative Value of wheat and Labour.--Choice of Land, and relative Advantages.--Clearing Land.--Hurricane in the Woods.-- Variable Weather.--Insects.

November the 2d, 1833.

MANY thanks, dearest mother, for the contents of the box which arrived in August. I was charmed with the pretty caps and worked frocks sent for my baby; the little fellow looks delightfully in his new robes, and I can almost fancy is conscious of the accession to his wardrobe, so proud he seems of his dress. He grows fat and lively, and, as you may easily suppose, is at once the pride and delight of his foolish mother's heart.

His father, who loves him as much as I do myself; often laughs at my fondness, and asks me if I do not think him the ninth wonder of the world. He has fitted up a sort of rude carriage on the hand-sleigh for the little fellow--nothing better than a tea-chest, lined with a black bear-skin, and in this humble equipage he enjoys many a pleasant ride over the frozen ground.

Nothing could have happened more opportunely for us than the acquisition of my uncle's legacy, as it has enabled us to make some useful additions to our farm, for which we must have waited a few years. We have laid out a part of the property in purchasing a fine lot of land adjoining our home lot. The quality of our new purchase is excellent, and, from its situation, greatly enhances the value of the whole property.

We had a glorious burning this summer after the ground was all logged up; that is, all the large timbers chopped into lengths, and drawn together in heaps with oxen. To effect this the more readily we called a logging-bee. We had a number of settlers attend, with yokes of oxen and men to assist us. After that was over, my husband, with the men servants, set the heaps on fire; and a magnificent sight it was to see such a conflagration all round us. I was a little nervous at first on account of the nearness of some of the log-heaps to the house, but care is always taken to fire them with the wind blowing in a direction away from the building. Accidents have sometimes happened, but they are of rarer occurrence than might be expected, when we consider the subtlety and destructiveness of the element employed on the occasion.

If the weather be very dry; and a brisk wind blowing, the work of destruction proceeds with astonishing rapidity; sometimes the fire will communicate with the forest and run over many hundreds of acres. This is not considered favourable for clearing, as it destroys the underbush and light timbers, which are almost indispensable for ensuring a good burning. It is, however, a magnificent sight to see the blazing trees and watch the awful progress of the conflagration, as it hurries onward, consuming all before it, or leaving such scorching mementoes as have blasted the forest growth for years.

When the ground is very dry the fire will run all over the fallow, consuming the dried leaves, sticks, and roots. Of a night the effect is more evident; sometimes the wind blows particles of the burning fuel into the hollow pines and tall decaying stumps; these readily ignite, and after a time present an appearance that is exceedingly fine and fanciful. Fiery columns, the bases of which are hidden by the dense smoke wreaths, are to be seen in every direction, sending up showers of sparks that are whirled about like rockets and fire-wheels in the wind. Some of these tall stumps, when the fire has reached the summit, look like gas lamp-posts newly lit. The fire will sometimes continue unextinguished for days.

After the burning is over the brands are collected and drawn together again to be reburnt; and, strange as it may appear to you, there is no work that is more interesting and exciting than that of tending the log- heaps, rousing up the dying flames and closing them in, and supplying the fires with fresh fuel.

There are always two burnings: first, the brush heaps, which have lain during the winter till the drying winds and hot suns of April and May have rendered them sear, are set fire to; this is previous to forming the log-heaps.

If the season be dry, and a brisk wind abroad, much of the lighter timber is consumed, and the larger trees reduced during this first burning. After this is over, the rest is chopped and logged up for the second burning: and lastly, the remnants are collected and consumed till the ground be perfectly free from all encumbrances, excepting the standing stumps, which rarely burn out, and remain eye-sores for several years. The ashes are then scattered abroad, and the field fenced in with split timber; the great work of clearing is over.

Our crops this year are oats, corn, and pumpkins, and potatoes, with some turnips. We shall have wheat, rye, oats, potatoes, and corn next harvest, which will enable us to increase our stock. At present we have only a yoke of oxen (Buck and Bright, the names of three-fourths of all the working oxen in Canada), two cows, two calves, three small pigs, ten hens, and three ducks, and a pretty brown pony: but she is such a skilful clearer of seven-railed fences that we shall be obliged to part with her. Breachy cattle of any kind are great disturbers of public tranquillity and private friendship; for which reason any settler who values the good-will of his neighbours would rather part with the best working yoke of oxen in the township, than keep them if they prove breachy.

A small farmer at home would think very poorly of our Canadian possessions, especially when I add that our whole stock of farming implements consists of two reaping-hooks, several axes, a spade, and a couple of hoes. Add to these a queer sort of harrow that is made in the shape of a triangle for the better passing between the stumps: this is a rude machine compared with the nicely painted instruments of the sort I have been accustomed to see used in Britain. It is roughly hewn, and put together without regard to neatness; strength for use is all that is looked to here. The plough is seldom put into the land before the third or fourth year, nor is it required; the general plan of cropping the first fallow with wheat or oats, and sowing grass-seeds with the grain to make pastures, renders the plough unnecessary till such time as the grass-lands require to be broken up. This method is pursued by most settlers while they are clearing bush-land; always chopping and burning enough to keep a regular succession of wheat and spring crops, while the former clearings are allowed to remain in grass.

The low price that is now given for grain of every kind, wheat having fetched only from two shillings and nine-pence to four shillings the bushel, makes the growing of it a matter of less importance than rearing and fatting of stock. Wages bear no proportion to the price of produce; a labourer receives ten and even eleven dollars and board a month, while wheat is selling at only three shillings, three shillings and six pence or four shillings, and sometimes even still less. The returns are little compared with the outlay on the land; nor does the land produce that great abundance that men are apt to look for on newly cleared ground. The returns of produce, however, must vary with the situation and fertility of the soil, which is generally less productive in the immediate vicinity of the lakes and rivers than a little further back from them, the land being either swampy or ridgy, covered with pines and beset with blocks of limestone and granite, the sub-soil poor and sandy.

This is the case on the small lakes and on the banks of the Otanabee; the back lots are generally much finer in quality, producing hard wood, such as bass-wood, maple, hickory, butter-nut, oak, beach, and iron- wood; which trees always indicate a more productive soil than the pine tribe.

In spite of the indifference of the soil the advantage of a water frontage is considered a matter of great importance in the purchasing of land; and, lots with water privileges usually fetch a much higher price than those further removed from it. These lands are in general in the possession of the higher class of settlers, who can afford to pay something extra for a pretty situation, and the prospect of future improvements when the country shall be under a higher state of cultivation and more thickly settled.

We cannot help regarding with infinite satisfaction the few acres that are cleared round the house and covered with crops. A space of this kind in the midst of the dense forest imparts a cheerfulness to the mind, of which those that live in an open country, or even a partially woodedone, can form no idea. The bright sunbeams and the blue and cloudlesssky breaking in upon you, rejoices the eye and cheers the heart as much as the cool shade of a palm-grove would the weary traveller on the sandy wastes of Africa.

If we feel this so sensibly who enjoy the opening of a lake of full three-quarters of a mile in breadth directly in front of our windows, what must those do whose clearing is first opened in the depths of the forest, hemmed in on every side by a thick wall of trees, through the interminable shades of which the eye vainly endeavours to penetrate in search of other objects and other scenes; but so dense is the growth of timber, that all beyond the immediate clearing is wrapped in profound obscurity. A settler on first locating on his lot knows no more of its boundaries and its natural features than he does of the northwest passage.

Under such disadvantages it is ten chances to one if he chooses the best situation on the land for the site of his house. This is a very sufficient reason for not putting up an expensive building till the land is sufficiently cleared to allow its advantages and disadvantages to become evident. Many eligible spots often present themselves to the eye of the settler, in clearing his land, that cause him to regret having built before he could obtain a better choice of ground. But circumstances will seldom admit of delay in building in the bush; a dwelling must be raised speedily, and that generally on the first cleared acre. The emigrant, however, looks forward to some no very distant period when he shall be able to gratify both his taste and love of comfort in the erection of a handsomer and better habitation than his log-house or his shanty, which he regards only in the light of a temporary accommodation.

On first coming to this country nothing surprised me more than the total absence of trees about the dwelling-houses and cleared lands; the axe of the chopper relentlessly levels all before him. Man appears to contend with the trees of the forest as though they were his most obnoxious enemies; for he spares neither the young sapling in its greenness nor the ancient trunk in its lofty pride; he wages war against the forest with fire and steel.

There are several sufficient reasons to be given for this seeming want of taste. The forest-trees grow so thickly together that they have no room for expanding and putting forth lateral branches; on the contrary, they run up to an amazing height of stem, resembling seedlings on a hot-bed that have not duly been thinned out. Trees of this growth when unsupported by others are tall, weak, and entirely divested of those graces and charms of outline and foliage that would make them desirable as ornaments to our grounds; but this is not the most cogent reason for not leaving them, supposing some more sightly than others were to be found.

Instead of striking deep roots in the earth, the forest-trees, with the exception of the pines, have very superficial hold in the earth; the roots running along the surface have no power to resist the wind when it bends the tops, which thus act as a powerful lever in tearing them from their places.

The taller the tree the more liable it is to being uprooted by storms; and if those that are hemmed in, as in the thickly-planted forests, fall, you may suppose the certain fate of any isolated tree, deprived of its former protectors, when left to brave and battle with the storm. It is sure to fall, and may chance to injure any cattle that are within its reach. This is the great reason why trees are not left in the clearing. Indeed, it is a less easy matter to spare them when chopping than I at first imagined, but the fall of one tree frequently brings down two, three; or even more smaller ones that stand near it. A good chopper will endeavour to promote this as much as possible by partly chopping through smaller ones in the direction they purpose the larger one to fall.

I was so desirous of preserving a few pretty sapling beech-trees that pleased me, that I desired the choppers to spare them; but the only one that was saved from destruction in the chopping had to pass through a fiery ordeal, which quickly scorched and withered up its gay green leaves: it now stands a melancholy monument of the impossibility of preserving trees thus left. The only thing to be done if you desire trees, is to plant them while young in favourable situations, when they take deep root and spread forth branches the same as the trees in our parks and hedge-rows.

Another plan which we mean to adopt on our land is to leave several acres of forest in a convenient situation, and chop and draw out the old timbers for fire-wood, leaving the younger growth for ornament. This method of preserving a grove of trees is not liable to the objections formerly stated, and combines the useful with the ornamental.

There is a strange excitement created in the mind whilst watching the felling of one of the gigantic pines or oaks of the forest. Proudly and immoveably it seems at first to resist the storm of blows that assail its massy trunk, from the united axes of three or even four choppers. As the work of destruction continues, a slight motion is perceived--an almost imperceptible quivering of the boughs. Slowly and slowly it inclines, while the loud rending of the trunk at length warns you that its last hold on earth is gone. The axe of the chopper has performed its duty; the motion of the falling tree becomes accelerated every instant, till it comes down in thunder on the plain, with a crash that makes the earth tremble and the neighbouring trees reel and bow before it.

Though decidedly less windy than our British isles, Canada is subject at times to sudden storms, nearly approaching to what might be termed whirlwinds and hurricanes. A description of one of these tempests I gave you in an early letter. During the present summer I witnessed another hurricane, somewhat more violent and destructive in its effect.

The sky became suddenly overcast with clouds of a highly electric nature. The storm came from the north-west, and its fury appeared to be confined within the breadth of a few hundred yards. I was watching with some degree of interest the rapid movements in the lurid, black, and copper-coloured clouds that were careering above the lake, when I was surprised by the report of trees falling on the opposite shore, and yet more so by seeing the air filled with scattered remnants of the pines within less than a hundred yards of the house, while the wind was scarcely felt on the level ground on which I was standing.

In a few seconds the hurricane had swept over the water, and with irresistible power laid low not less than thirty or forty trees, bending others to the ground like reeds. It was an awful sight to see the tall forest rocking and bowing before the fury of the storm, and with the great trunks falling one after the other, as if they had been a pack of cards thrown down by a breath. Fortunately for us the current of the wind merely passed over our open clearing, doing us no further damage than uprooting three big pine-trees on the ridge above the lake. But in the direction of our neighbour ------ it did great mischief, destroying many rods of fencing, and crushing his crops with the prostrate trunks and scattered boughs, occasioning great loss and much labour to repair the mischief.

The upturned roots of trees thrown down by the wind are great nuisances and disfigurements in clearings, and cause much more trouble to remove than those that have been felled by the axe. Some of the stumps of these wind-fallen trees will right again if chopped from the trunk soon after they have been blown down, the weight of the roots and upturned soil being sufficient to bring them back into their former places; we have pursued this plan very frequently.

We have experienced one of the most changeable seasons this summer that was possible. The spring was warm and pleasant, but from the latter part of May till the middle of harvest we had heavy rains, cloudy skies, with moist hot days, and frequent tempests of thunder and lightning, most awfully grand, but seemingly less destructive than such storms are at home. Possibly the tall forest-trees divert the danger from the low dwellings, which are sufficiently sheltered from the effect of the lightning. The autumn has also proved wet and cold. I must say at present I do not think very favourably of the climate; however, it is not right to judge by so short an acquaintance with it, as every one says this summer has been unlike any of its predecessors.

The insects have been a sad annoyance to us, and I hailed the approach of the autumn as a respite from their attacks; for these pests are numerous and various, and no respecters of persons, as I have learned from sad experience.

I am longing for home-letters; let me hear from you soon.

Farewell, friends.

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