In the wake of the federal budget, I find myself pondering our cultural edifices, big and small. I’m thinking about the CBC, whose funding will be cut by “only” $115-million over the next three years. Could’ve been worse, some say. High time, others mutter.
This makes me worry, for some reason, about the CBC’s roof, if indeed it has one. What if it needs repair? What if raccoons invade the CBC attic?
I’m also thinking about the fate of another cultural landmark, a modest A-frame cabin on the shores of Roblin Lake in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, built by the great Canadian poet Al Purdy and his wife, Eurithe, in 1957. The Purdys had been living in Montreal, where the Canadian poetry scene, with Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Milton Acorn and Leonard Cohen, was heating up. But Mr. Purdy couldn’t earn a living writing poetry. (Nobody can.) He had some success writing radio plays – for the CBC, as it turns out – until that market dried up.
At 39, the writer who would become what author Dennis Lee has described as “the finest poet English Canada has produced and one of the enduring poets of the 20th century” was impoverished and something of a failure.
So with their last $800, he and Eurithe bought a lakeside property near his hometown of Wooler, Ont. They came on a magazine story about how to build an A-frame, and ordered the instructions. Mr. Purdy didn’t know one end of a hammer from the other, and the first winter they spent building the cabin was a bitter one. They used salvaged lumber, lived on what Eurithe could earn as a secretary and, on occasion, dined on roadkill stew. At first, the place featured a listing outhouse where Mr. Purdy liked to read the classics – he was a high-school dropout who had a library of more than 3,000 books. There was a windowless shed where he wrote, poking away on his manual typewriter.
It was not romantic in the least, but the move from the city to this weedy lake took Mr. Purdy back into the landscape of his ancestors, and anchored him. Here, where he wrote The Country North of Belleville and many of his best poems, he came into his own voice, a raucous, droll, vivid, visionary inflection that is unique in Canadian writing, if not the world.
But the cabin was also party central. A trip down the 401 to the A-frame became a regular pilgrimage for writers such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and others who would come to define CanLit. (Mr. Purdy could also be a jerk; Ms. Atwood signed one of her books to him with the words, “To Awful Al, from Perfect Peggy.”)
Eurithe fed their weekend visitors, while her husband served them his homemade wild grape wine and provoked loud arguments over books, poetry and politics. The A-frame, built with its scavenged lumber and paint, became one of the weight-bearing beams of a young culture still under construction (a culture that, along with oil and maple syrup, has become one of our most valuable exports).
Mr. Purdy died 12 years ago. As his health began to fail, he and Eurithe spent more time on the West Coast, returning to the cabin in the summers. Now his widow is 87, and living in B.C. The time has come for someone else to care for the A-frame.
Four years ago, Vancouver editor Jean Baird launched a fundraising campaign to save the cabin and turn it into a writer’s retreat. She has raised $160,000, but the project needs almost twice that. Despite the best efforts of Ms. Baird (and this is someone who successfully fought to get Canadian literature taught in B.C. high schools), no government funding agency or patron of the arts has come forward yet.
Unless someone writes a cheque, the Purdy A-frame will be sold, and perhaps torn down. The raccoons may have already moved in.
Turning this cabin into a retreat would not only honour our best poet, it would also provide the incalculable gift the Purdys extended to writers in the past – a place where the writing life is honoured, where it can thrive and evolve. And it would demonstrate that Canadians value their writers, past and future.
Do they? I’m not so sure. Would the Americans, Ms. Baird wondered in a recent interview, sell off Walden Pond?
So I worry about what will happen when the CBC’s roof springs a leak, and the sensible arguments begin that the place has gone beyond repair. And I worry about the A-frame vanishing, along with all trace of Al Purdy’s imprint on Roblin Lake, when it could still shelter a new generation of writers.
Marni Jackson is a Toronto journalist and author.
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