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Backwoods of Canada
Letter 17

Ague.--Illness of the Family.--Probable Cause.--Root-house.--Setting in of Winter.--Insect termed a "Sawyer."--Temporary Church.

November the 28th, 1834.

You will have been surprised, and possibly distressed, by my long silence of several months, but when I tell you it has been occasioned by sickness, you will cease to wonder that I did not write.

My dear husband, my servant, the poor babe, and myself, were all at one time confined to our beds with ague. You know how severe my sufferings always were at home with intermittents, and need not marvel if they were no less great in a country where lake-fevers and all kinds of intermittent fevers abound.

Few persons escape the second year without being afflicted with this weakening complaint; the mode of treatment is repeated doses of calomel, with castor-oil or salts, and is followed up by quinine. Those persons who do not choose to employ medical advice on the subject, dose themselves with ginger-tea, strong infusion of hyson, or any other powerful green tea, pepper, and whiskey, with many other remedies that have the sanction of custom or quackery.

I will not dwell on this uncomfortable period, further than to tell you that we considered the complaint to have had its origin in a malaria, arising from a cellar below the kitchen. When the snow melted, this cellar became half full of water, either from the moisture draining through the spongy earth, or from the rising of a spring beneath the house; be it as it may, the heat of the cooking and Franklin stoves in the kitchen and parlour, caused a fermentation to take place in the stagnant fluid before it could be emptied; the effluvia arising from this mass of putrifying water affected us all. The female servant, who was the most exposed to its baneful influence, was the first of our household that fell sick, after which, we each in turn became unable to assist each other. I think I suffer an additional portion of the malady from seeing the sufferings of my dear husband and my beloved child.

I lost the ague in a fortnight's time,--thanks to calomel and quinine; so did my babe and his nurse: it has, however, hung on my husband during the whole of the summer, and thrown a damp upon his exertions and gloom upon his spirits. This is the certain effect of ague, it causes the same sort of depression on the spirits as a nervous fever. My dear child has not been well ever since he had the ague, and looks very pale and spiritless.

We should have been in a most miserable condition, being unable to procure a female servant, a nurse, or any one to attend upon us, and totally unable to help ourselves; but for the prompt assistance of Mary on one side, and Susannah on the other, I know not what would have become of us in our sore trouble.

This summer has been excessively hot and dry; the waters in the lakes and rivers being lower than they had been known for many years; scarcely a drop of rain fell for several weeks. This extreme drought rendered the potatoe-crop a decided failure. Our Indian-corn was very fine; so were the pumpkins. We had some fine vegetables in the garden, especially the peas and melons; the latter were very large and fine. The cultivation of the melon is very simple: you first draw the surrounding earth together with a broad hoe into a heap; the middle of this heap is then slightly hollowed out, so as to form a basin, the mould being raised round the edges; into this hollow you insert several melon-seeds, and leave the rest to the summer heat; if you water the plants from time to time, it is well for them; the soil should be fine black mould; and if your hills are inclining to a hollow part of your ground, so as to retain the moisture, so much the finer will be your fruit. It is the opinion of practical persons who have bought wisdom by some years' experience of the country, that in laying out and planting a garden, the beds should not be raised, as is the usual custom; and give us a reason, that the sun having such great power draws the moisture more readily from the earth where the beds are elevated above the level, and, in consequence of the dryness of the ground, the plants wither away.

As there appears some truth in the remark, I am inclined to adopt the plan.

Vegetables are in general fine, and come quickly to maturity, considering the lateness of the season in which they are usually put into the ground. Peas are always fine, especially the marrowfats, which are sometimes grown in the fields, on cleared lands that are under the plough. We have a great variety of beans, all of the French or kidney kind; there is a very prolific white runner, of which I send you some of the seed: the method of planting them is to raise a small hillock of mould by drawing the earth up with the hoe; flatten this, or rather hollow it a little in the middle, and drop in four or five seeds round the edges; as soon as the bean puts forth its runners insert a pole of five or six feet in the centre of the hill; the plants will all meet and twine up it, bearing a profusion of pods, which are cut and foiled as the scarlet-runners, or else, in their dry or ripe state, stewed and eaten with salt meat; this, I believe, is the more usual way of cooking them. The early bush-bean is a dwarf, with bright yellow seed.

Lettuces are very fine, and may be cultivated easily, and very early, by transplanting the seedlings that appear as soon as the ground is free from snow. Cabbages and savoys, and all sorts of roots, keep during the winter in the cellars or root-houses; but to the vile custom of keeping green vegetables in the shallow, moist cellars below the kitchens, much of the sickness that attacks settlers under the various forms of agues, intermittent, remittent, and lake-fevers, may be traced.

Many, of the lower class especially, are not sufficiently careful in clearing these cellars from the decaying portions of vegetable matter, which are often suffered to accumulate from year to year to infect the air of the dwelling. Where the house is small, and the family numerous, and consequently exposed to its influence by night, the baneful consequences may be readily imagined. "Do not tell me of lakes and swamps as the cause of fevers and agues; look to your cellars," was the observation of a blunt but experienced Yankee doctor. I verily believe it was the cellar that was the cause of sickness in our house all the spring and summer.

A root-house is indispensably necessary for the comfort of a settler's family; if well constructed, with double log-walls, and the roof secured from the soaking in of the rain or melting snows, it preserves vegetables, meat, and milk excellently. You will ask if the use be so great, and the comfort so essential, why does not every settler build one?

Now, dear mamma, this is exactly what every new comer says; but he has to learn the difficulty there is at first of getting these matters accomplished, unless, indeed, he have (which is not often the case) the command of plenty of ready money, and can afford to employ extra workmen. Labour is so expensive, and the working seasons so short, that many useful and convenient buildings are left to a future time; and a cellar, which one man can excavate in two days, if he work well, is made to answer the purpose, till the season of leisure arrives, or necessity obliges the root-house to be made. We are ourselves proof of this very sort of unwilling procrastination; but the logs are now cut for the root-house, and we shall have one early in the spring. I would, however, recommend any one that could possibly do so at first, to build a root-house without delay, and also to have a well dug; the springs lying very few feet below the surface renders this neither laborious or very expensive. The creeks will often fail in very dry weather, and the lake and river-waters grow warm and distasteful during the spring and summer. The spring-waters are generally cold and pure, even in the hottest weather, and delightfully refreshing.

Our winter seems now fairly setting in: the snow has twice fallen, and as often disappeared, since the middle of October; but now the ground is again hardening into stone; the keen north-west wind is abroad; and every outward object looks cold and wintry. The dark line of pines that bound the opposite side of the lake is already hoary and heavy with snow, while the half-frozen lake has a deep leaden tint, which is only varied in shade by the masses of ice which shoot out in long points, forming mimic bays and peninsulas. The middle of the stream, where the current is strongest, is not yet frozen over, but runs darkly along like a river between its frozen banks. In some parts where the banks are steep and overhung with roots and shrubs, the fallen snow and water take the most fantastic forms.

I have stood of a bright winter day looking with infinite delight on the beautiful mimic waterfalls congealed into solid ice along the bank of the river; and by the mill-dam, from contemplating these petty frolics of Father Frost, I have been led to picture to myself the sublime scenery of the arctic regions.

In spite of its length and extreme severity, I do like the Canadian winter: it is decidedly the healthiest season of the year; and it is no small enjoyment to be exempted from the torments of the insect tribes, that are certainly great drawbacks to your comfort in the warmer months.

We have just received your last packet;--a thousand thanks for the contents. We are all delighted with your useful presents, especially the warm shawls and merinos. My little James looks extremely well in his new frock and cloak; they will keep him very warm this cold weather: he kissed the pretty fur-lined slippers you sent me, and said, "Pussy, pussy." By the way, we have a fine cat called Nora Crena, the parting gift of our friend ------, who left her as a keepsake for my boy. Jamie dotes upon her; and I do assure you I regard her almost as a second Whittington's cat: neither mouse nor chitmunk has dared intrude within our log-walls since she made her appearance; the very crickets, that used to distract us with their chirping from morning till night, have forsaken their old haunts. Besides the crickets, which often swarm so as to become intolerable nuisances, destroying your clothes and woollens, we are pestered by large black ants, that gallop about, eating up sugar preserves, cakes, anything nice they can gain access to; these insects are three times the size of the black ants of Britain, and have a most voracious appetite: when they find no better prey they kill each other, and that with the fierceness and subtilty of the spider. They appear less sociable in their habits than other ants; though, from the numbers that invade your dwellings, I should think they formed a community like the rest of their species.

The first year's residence in a new log-house you are disturbed by a continual creaking sound which grates upon the ears exceedingly, till you become accustomed to it: this is produced by an insect commonly called a "sawyer." This is the larvae of some fly that deposits its eggs in the bark of the pine-trees. The animal in its immature state is of a whitish colour, the body composed of eleven rings; the head armed with a pair of short, hard pincers: the skin of this creature is so rough that on passing your finger over it, it reminds you of a rasp, yet to the eye it is perfectly smooth. You would be surprised at the heap of fine saw- dust that is to be seen below the hole they have been working in all night. These sawyers form a fine feast for the woodpeckers, and jointly they assist in promoting the rapid decomposition of the gigantic forest- trees, that would otherwise encumber the earth from age to age. How infinite is that Wisdom that rules the natural world! How often do we see great events brought about by seemingly insignificant agents! Yet are they all servants of the Most High, working his will, and fulfilling his behests. One great want which has been sensibly felt in this distant settlement, I mean the want of public worship on the Sabbath-day, promises to be speedily remedied. A subscription is about to be opened among the settlers of this and part of the adjacent township for the erection of a small building, which may answer the purpose of church and school-house; also for the means of paying a minister for stated seasons of attendance.

------ has allowed his parlour to be used as a temporary church, and service has been several times performed by a highly respectable young Scotch clergyman; and I can assure you we have a considerable congregation, considering how scattered the inhabitants are, and that the emigrants consist of catholics and dissenters, as well as episcopalians.

These distinctions, however, are not carried to such lengths in this country as at home; especially where the want of religious observances has been sensibly felt. The word of God appears to be listened to with gladness. May a blessing attend those that in spirit and in truth would restore again to us the public duties of the Sabbath, which, left to our own guidance, we are but too much inclined to neglect.


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