Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Finding Inspiration in Landscape

By Kim

The idea that I was meant to be a writer came to me as a jolt – literally. I was eight years old when my parents located my grandmother’s childhood home, an old stone farmhouse in Galt, Ontario, Canada. Listening to the owner reminisce about his boyhood encounters with a poor starving artist (my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens) and his pretty daughters (my grandmother and great-aunt), I learned much of the art my parents owned had been created in that very room. With threadbare carpeting and ugly faux-wood paneling on the walls, it hardly looked like a space to inspire an artist. I fought the urge to blurt out, “Why did you ruin a perfectly good studio?” The words not only would have landed me in a great deal of trouble, but they made no sense. I had no idea what Carl’s studio had looked like.

I had other strange urges as well; to pull up a corner of carpeting to see if the wood floors were still there underneath, to run outside and hug a gangly looking elm tree that waved at me through the window, to seek out my grandmother’s old bedroom. One impulse I could not resist: As I left I touched the outside stone walls.

I felt an electric current course from the stones into my hand – a feeling I’ve never forgotten. At that moment I knew two things: I was going to write a book someday, and my grandmother was with me. We later learned she had passed away while we were at her old house.

I imagine every creative person, whether their craft is writing, painting, dancing, or quilting, has a place that inspires them, a place where the muse speaks freely. For Carl Ahrens it was the forests of Waterloo County, Ontario. I knew I must experience some of the places he held sacred in order to write his story in the way it was meant to be written. I hoped to feel something, to feed off the same creative energy that once fed him. I never expected to fall in love.

I will always be drawn to Waterloo County for the family history connection, the forests, and the wonderful people I have met there, but I know the Kitchener/Waterloo area is nothing at all today like it was in Carl’s time. His house in Galt was once a mile or more from the nearest neighbor. While the house itself has been lovingly restored to a much closer version of the original, there is a modern subdivision in the back yard, and an industrial park around the bend. Gone are the big trees the house was named for, and many of the old farm fields now yield only strip malls, restaurants, and big box stores. Were Carl still alive, he’d flee for the unspoiled wilderness up north.

‘Up north’ is where my heart resides. I know exactly the moment I first glimpsed Georgian Bay, because my camcorder clearly recorded my “Oh my God, look at that!” Next comes ten minutes of gushing remarks about the turquoise water, the lopsided windblown trees, and the rocky islands as the camcorder rests in my lap, recording footage of garbage littering the floor of the car.

I’ve been in Ontario four times in the last five years, and it’s the bay that draws me. Thankfully, I have close friends who live in Midland, so it’s a convenient place for me to visit. Being there brings back the memories of the best parts of my childhood in Maine. Quiet walks in the woods, rock-hopping on the coast, spotting the occasional deer, the smell of pine, night skies where the moon and stars feel so near you can touch them.

Unlike Maine, there’s also a deep personal connection for me, almost primal, to the landscape of that part of Ontario. I have many candid family photographs of the Ahrens family on the beach at Leith, near Owen Sound and a newspaper article claiming Carl christened a stretch of forest there his church. Much of the Bruce Peninsula is still strongly influenced by the same Ojibwa tribe that adopted Carl as a young man. I first heard the sound of native drums and smelled the intoxicating combination of sage, sweetgrass and tobacco just outside of Tobermory. Many of Carl’s contemporaries found inspiration in the landscape of Georgian Bay – Tom Thomson, Frederick Varley and A.Y. Jackson to name a few. The image you see here of a painting by Varley is a prime example. Some of the places I find most inspiring, however, have no family connection at all. The first time I saw the north shore at Killarney my immediate thought was “I want to paint this.”

If I could bring a laptop and camp out at my friend Mike’s cabin on Wahnekewening Beach, I’m certain I’d finish my book in six weeks. As a wife and mother of two, this idea is merely a daydream I indulge in when the words just don’t want to come. I remind myself that Carl, too, relied on photographs and memory for inspiration when illness prevented him from leaving his house for over a year, and still produced some of his best work. Hoping to do the same, I surround myself with images of my recent trip to Georgian Bay with my oldest daughter, Sasha. When that doesn’t work I use one of the rocks I picked up from the shore as a worry stone, play my CD of Georgian Bay sounds, drink my Ojibwa Sacred Blend tea and dab sweetgrass lotion on my neck for aromatherapy. All senses engaged, I begin to type.


  1. Well told Kim. I hope one day to make the trip there with you. There and Scotland, too.

    Fred Downes, otherwise known as Dad - who can't remember his login info and has to do this as anonymous!

  2. That was wonderful to read, Kim. I've never known where your Grandfather's house, Big Trees is, but hope to someday be able to drive past it.

    It was lovely to see you this summer and to meet beautiful Sasha. Glad the shells were a hit!

    I'm off to the Gatineau north of Ottawa this weekend to visit friends. Maxine

  3. Thanks for taking me 'up north'. Your Aunt Lorna is proud to have another writer in the family.

  4. Beautifully written Kim. So well expressed. Along with your photos you give a double visual picture of Georgian Bay--the place I know so well. I have loved living close to Leith, in Owen Sound, and near the cold, clear, blue waters of this "Sixth Great Lake". It is supposed to be one of the bluest bodies of water in Ontario--or is it Canada? I hadn't realized that my great uncle Carl had chosen a place in Leith as his "Church" but am glad to know that . . . for I think I know where that would have been--on the old Anseley-Rixon property that is now broken up into small acre lots for presitgious homes and where Keefer Creek flows along in behind them and where their little one had toddled off to and was later found sleeping one day. Next time you are going 'north' to Tobermory, pull into Lion's Head and take the road north to Isthmus Bay--one of my favorite spots where the water laps up onto the large flat stones and where you can see the Niagara Escarpment to the right with the "Lion's Head" and Whipperwill Bay to the left. I have often wondered who named Isthmus Bay and if he/she had a lisp! Paula

  5. Thanks for commenting, Paula, and I so envy you being able to look out over Owen Sound every day. You are right - Carl's "church" was at the edge of the Rixon property according to the article I have, which I will e-mail to you as it is all about your neck of the woods. The "little one" you mention having wandered off happened to be my grandmother, Chloris. She decided to go for a forest walk by herself at the ripe old age of two! She was apparently gone all day and found about a mile - yes, you read that right - away. She was asleep on a sandy bank, unharmed, and apparently not frightened. Thank you for the name of the Creek, as I didn't know it.

    Must see Lion's Head!

  6. I have the good fortune to have lived on or near Georgian Bay all my live. First in Meaford and now Owen Sound.
    I am a member of the Chippewas of Nawash from Cape Croker.
    The earth is our mother and the water of the lakes and river flow through her. The flora decorate our mother with the color of seasons.

    "The Creator designed nature, people, and all things as an interconnected system. Everything is connected to each other. This connection exists in the Unseen World. The same way our body parts are all port of the body-the parts are separate but also connected. If a part of our body is in pain, the rest of the body recognizes this pain as its own. In other words, the pain of one is the pain of all. This is also true of every interconnected system. Because we are connected, we should respect and take care of our Earth and each other."

    ".the Creator was responsible for the existence of everything, a part of the Creator's spirit exists in everything and thus all things are connected."
    --Larry P. Aitken, CHIPPEWA

    No wonder there have been so many wonderful painter who have painted our landscapes near Georgian Bay.

    Your post was most respectful.

  7. It sounds like a beautiful, vibrant place. I can understand why it's so inspiring to you.

    I also loved the story about your decision to become a writer (and your connection to your grandmother.)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  8. Not only do I strongly relate to this as a writer, but one who feels your deep family connection and love for Ontario and your dear friends there. This beautifully written piece triggered so many wonderful memories. Thank you!

  9. Hello susanquay,

    Thank you so much for your comment. My great-grandfather was a friend to many tribes throughout the American west in his youth, but the tribe closest to his heart was the First Nation tribe that was located on the Suageen River near Southampton. The wife of the Chief back in 1896 believed that Carl was the reincarntion of the son she had recently lost, and the tribe adopted him and gave him the name of the lost son. That is quite an honor.

    I understand that is not the same tribe you are a part of, but surely they had many dealings with each other, being so close in geography. Carl had great respect for Native ways and customs and even religious beliefs. I do intend to bring this all into the book I am writing about Carl, and want to do so in the most accurate and respectful way possible. I experienced a Full Moon ceremony up in Tobermory and it was, in all honesty, one of the most moving things I have ever taken part in. It made me feel especially close to my ancestors, not that they ever seem far from me. I fully believe this book is being written 'with help.'

    If the language is the same between the Cape Croker tribe and the Southampton one (and I don't want to assume it is)I wonder if you or anyone you know may be able to help me with some brief translations. I would give credit, of course.

  10. To Elizabeth Spann Craig,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Since you enjoyed the family history story, you may be interested in my first post (the July 10th post) about borrowing characters from your family tree. I could never have made up someone as interesting as my great-grandfather, the painter. I'm sure my critique partners, Joan and Pamela will agree on that! You can check out further information on him at

  11. Maxine, it was great to see you in Kitchener a few weeks ago, and Sasha adores the little shells. Have fun in Gatineau. Wish I could be there.

  12. Hi Kim- Great Blog Post, I wish I COULD EXPERIENCE THAT CLAM AND SERENITY you have found in Ontario! Robert

  13. Jeanette Ahrens28 August, 2009

    Hi Kim,
    Once again, thank you for opening the door wide enough for us to get another glimpse of Carl through your eyes. Your portrayal of your first trip to Carl's studio makes me believe you were hearing whispers from the past that you are bringing to life in the present. Not everyone can hear those whispers, and few who hear can translate them in such a meaningful, personal way. Reading your blog engaged all my senses, transporting me to a world I might never otherwise see. I am looking forward to your book more now than ever.


  14. Thank you for your post Jeanette! For the benefit of everyone else who may find this post, Jeanette's husband is Carl Ahrens' great-grandchild as well. He is a descendant of Carl's first wife, Emily, and I am from his second wife, Madonna.

    In life, when Carl left Emily he never looked back as far as any of us have learned. In death I think this may be a wrong he wished to undo. I knew nothing about his first family other than names when I started this journey, and with very little effort on my part I am now in touch with descendants from both his sons by Emily. I include photos from both families on my website for Carl because I consider them ALL my family. If he is scowling about that somewhere in heaven, which I doubt, that is just too bad.

    As for hearing whispers from the past - yes, that's pretty much the story of my life anymore. After I finish this book I'll need to write one on Eleanor Douglass just so I can keep Carl around for awhile longer (as a character in part of the book). Things written in his point of view never end up how I intended them - but when I just let the images in and the words flow through me it is truly magic. If I fight, I hit a brick wall and write the same damn scene six times. Then I get mad and try a seventh. I wonder where I get my stubborn streak?

  15. Hi Kim,
    We've had some great times around the Bay, haven't we! And it has been a pleasure to see you experience so much of your great-grandfather's past! I am glad Mike & I could help enable some of your adventures, and equally grateful that you have allowed us to be a part of others you had planned. Hopefully some day soon we will get that cabin renovated a litte more, and it will be ready for your visit to work on the book! But good luck leaving the husband & kids behind. I dont think Sasha would allow that to happen now!! :o)

  16. Hi Wendy,

    Yes, Sasha (my oldest)loves Ontario nearly as much as I do now, and she wants to adopt both you and Mike.

    I'm ready for that cabin any day.

    For anyone else who is reading this post, Wendy and Mike are the wonderful friends from Midland who cart me to and from the airport in Toronto and share in many of my adventures. Am I ever glad you guys found my little post on a Roycroft site all those years ago. The internet is a wonderful thing!

  17. Kim,always glad to read of the progress you are making,looking forward to the eventual publishing of your book on "Ahrens"
    good luck
    Don Meade,co-curator
    Elbert Hubbard-Roycroft Museum
    East Aurora,NY,USA

  18. Hi Don,

    Thank you for your comment and that wonderful tour of the Hubbard-Roycroft museum. I hope to be in your neck of the woods again sometime in the next couple of years. Roycroft is a very special place, and I've been craving a Roast Beef on Weck ever since I was in East Aurora back in 2006!

  19. Hi Kim,
    Somehow I missed this post when it first came out so am just reading now about your time in Ontario this summer. It was a delight having you and Sasha overnight with us, despite the sliver and the poor weather!

    John and I look forward to seeing you next time you "escape" to Canada!

  20. Hi Lorna,

    It was great to be able to stay with you and John at your gorgeous historical house right next to Victoria Park in Carl's old home town (Kitchener, then Berlin). Sasha had great fun in your tub and with that double staircase. She has commented several times that she wants stairs.

    My toe healed wonderfully and gave me no problems while we went home, thanks to your searching on the internet. I will have to remember that thread technique if I ever have a crippling blister like that again.

    I wish I could escape now and come up there again, even if it is nearing winter. If I could afford it, I'd rent your house out so you could go to Mexico for the winter!


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