IN SYNC WITH SELWYN (Chapter 4 of 6)

Canoeing in Marshall Lake, north of Nakina.

4 ̶ Through a Glass Darkly

After a hiatus of five years, the haze clears, and I can see my way clear to finish this post.

Selwyn Dewdney’s memoir suggests the origin of its title, Daylight in the Swamp. In the Preface, his son Keewatin references the title as “the last line of a highly questionable bush poem”. By “questionable” he means “off-colour”. By bush poem, he means the following:

Let go your c–ks, and grab your socks,

It’s daylight in the swamp!

I heard that ditty more than sixty years ago. One morning that summer, from my bunk in a coach on Canadian National Railways, my eyes popped open at that rude wake-up call. Our group of high school Air Cadets was travelling from Northern Ontario to the west coast to Camp Abbotsford, B.C. During those two weeks, that ditty was burned into my memory banks.

That ditty has a long and venerable history. Apparently, in the nineteenth century, it was sung out by camp cooks and bosses in the tall timber stands of Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota. At some point, military types appropriated it, and soldiers and sailors and later, airmen, made it their own wake-up call. More recently, to accommodate gender fairness, women substituted “t–ts” for “c–ks”.

Exactly when Selwyn, and later, his son, learned it, is questionable (meaning, there is no answer). It’s unlikely that Selwyn, growing up near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, learned it as a kid, his father being an Anglican minister and all. Attending college in Toronto, Ontario, he may have heard it as a frat boy, even though he was a missionary in training. Spending summers as a student minister on Lac Seul, and making canoe trips to many rough camps, he was undoubtedly exposed to rough language. He even canoed solo a couple of times to Red Lake during the 1920s mining boom. And later, in Northern Ontario, as a traverse surveyor, he spent weeks at a time beyond the pale of civilization, and may have himself uttered the lines to get his crew moving before breakfast.

The point is, that the phrase “daylight in the swamp” is part of our vocabulary. At every opportunity, we jumped into swamps and wallowed there in the muskeg and among the black flies. I have hundreds of photos of the swamps I have known. Selwyn painted countless landscapes featuring swamps and, yes, black flies. We are both creatures of the swamp.

The haze is lifting. It is less of a mystery now why I have written extensively of experiences stemming from my trips into the wilderness, and why Selwyn found his life’s calling, around age 50, seeking out Aboriginal pictographs painted on remote rock canvases of Northern Ontario.

Reading Selwyn’s memoir, I find my memories intersecting with his. I too was born in Saskatchewan (I in 1940, he in 1909). As a kid, I too cavorted in a slough (the prairie name for a marshy lake). I too moved to Northern Ontario (I at age 13, he at age 15, to Kenora). We both fell in love with the bush, and explored it at every opportunity. At some point, we became avid canoeists (my motto, on my business card, was “Have Paddle, Will Travel”). We both switched our college studies (I from engineering to the arts, he from theology to arts). We both became qualified teachers, I specializing in English, he in painting.

We both began our careers as teachers. I married my life partner, Olga, in 1959. Selwyn married Irene in 1936. For the first few years of our marriages, we struggled to make ends meet. I had a son, Rob, and a daughter, Laura. Selwyn had four sons: Donner, Keewatin, Peter, and Christopher. Children of both families grew up familiar with canoeing. Both families dreamed of retiring to a lake in the wilderness.

But, summertimes were always hard. A teacher’s pay cheque did not stretch to cover the two months that we were effectively unemployed. I went away to take ungrading courses, borrowing to cover expenses. Selwyn took on summer jobs. Somehow, we each managed to squeeze in some days of vacation.

So it was that in the summer of 1943, when I was only three, Selwyn found himself up to his armpits in swamp and black flies.

Tom Thompson’s “Northern River”, more appropriately called “Northern Swamp”. My favourite painting.


About EJ Lavoie

Writer and independent publisher with website
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