According to Selwyn, in 1957, when he was almost 50 years old, “I finally discovered what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
In the meantime, he had left his high school teaching job, and made a marginal living by illustrating textbooks, teaching landscape painting, doing art therapy, and painting murals on commission. By sheer serendipity (or synchronicity), he landed a super summer job. With his family, exploring by canoe in Quetico Park, he recorded eleven pictograph sites as watercolour paintings. Pictographs became his obsession for the remainder of his life. It is this career which brought him a measure of national and even international fame.
He took photographic slides of sites. By experimenting with rice paper and crayon, he learned to reproduce the exact size and detail of pictographs. His searches took him north to Great Slave Lake, west to the foothills of the Rockies, east to Nova Scotia, and south to Minnesota. Often he travelled by canoe. For the first few years, he was a lone researcher in the field. By the late 1960s, several others had joined him. “I have visited, as of 1978, exactly three hundred and one rock art sites in Canada and the adjacent American states. I have personally recorded all but nine of these.”
His writings on rock art include Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes (1967) and The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway (1975) plus several other published articles. Selwyn died in 1979. A plaque erected near the Agawa pictographs pays tribute to the father of rock art research in Canada.
Who painted these ancient pictographs? And why? Answers are still pending. Who taught the artists that red ochre mixed with fish oil or even spit would bind to rock faces? Pictograph sites are usually associated with near-vertical rock faces beside waterways. What are the subjects of the paintings? Some are obviously representational of people and animals and objects. Others depict mythical creatures (such as Mishipizhiw, the Great Lynx) and supernatural beings (such as Maymaygwayshi, little hairy men sans noses).
I examined my first rock painting at Terrier Lake while on a canoe trip north of Nakina.
They were palm prints. Selwyn does not explain how he found this particular site, but he recorded his impressions: “A poor site . . . two handprints, a possible human, a few dots and lichen-spotted abstractions”.
Since then I have heard of other sites within a day’s travel, but I’ve never had the urge to launch my canoe and search for them. Selwyn records sites on Lake Nipigon (in Gull Bay, and at Echo Rock), Red Rock (west shore of Nipigon River), and at Agawa Rock (northeastern shore of Lake Superior). The Agawa pictographs are a tourist attraction, but the one time I stopped, ice and snow patches covered the path down to the shore, and I didn’t fancy my chances on a slippery ledge. There are rumours of a pictograph site on McKay Lake, southeast of Longlac. And some day I might visit Barbara Lake, east of Beardmore, and look for a site never mentioned by Selwyn.
How did I come upon Selwyn Dewdney’s book Daylight in the Swamp? My next novel (working title The Manitou Firebird) describes an inciting incident on the banks of the Pic River. I had already bushwhacked my way, through swamp and blackflies, to the site. I had discovered a delightful little falls tumbling into a creek leading to the Pic. And my research online had led me to Dewdney’s book and the chapter “Packing on the Pic”.
Synchronicity is a spiritual phenomenon. One looks for and recognizes meaningful coincidences in one’s life. Selwyn and I both had prairie connections, we both learned to love canoeing, and we both felt a strong attraction to the Northern bush. These are mere coincidences. What are the chances that we were both destined to visit remote Terrier Lake and gaze at red ochre handprints? Strong coincidence, but not necessarily synchronicity.
What are the chances that a book title would forge a bond between by a writer and a reader, and evoke memories of a prairie childhood, of adolescent adventures, and of half a lifetime of researching and writing about the boreal forest?
The title of Dewdney’s memoir came from a “questionable bush poem”. How did it come about that at every turn of a page I found myself in sync with Selwyn, with his thoughts, with his feelings, with his experiences of a lifetime?
Rock art is associated with red ochre. Red ochre is associated with the spirituality of prehistoric artists. Pictographs in red ochre have been painted on rock walls on every continent except Antarctica.
It is fitting that the ashes of Selwyn Dewdney have been committed to Lake Superior by his four sons. Agawa Rock overlooks the spot. On the rock is a huge animal with crested back and horned head.
Mishipizhiw. The Great Lynx.
It is fitting that the pictograph is painted in red ochre.
May he rest forever in sync.