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Emily Carr and the long arm of coincidence

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Earl Fowler

I dig coincidences.

The more meaningless they are, the less encumbered by any vestige of cosmic significance, the better.

• For example, I’ll bet you didn’t know that there are the same number of Earth-sun distances in a light-year as there are inches to the mile (63,360).

• Mark Twain was born in 1835 and died (as he predicted he would) in 1910, coinciding with consecutive appearances by Halley’s Comet (hailed by Twain as a fellow freak).

• Stephen Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death and died on Einstein’s 139th birthday.

• Every cell in our body has about 90 trillion atoms. There are an estimated 90 trillion stars in the Virgo Group of galaxies, which includes the Milky Way.

• The diameter of the sun is estimated at 864,000 miles, give or take. Back here on Earth, there are 86,400 seconds in a day.

• White supremacists are invariably the most deluded and least supreme members of the white race, itself a lamentable fiction. We are all mongrels and the better for it.

OK, that last one wasn’t so much a coincidence as ironic. But how about this?

I was considering writing a piece for this blog this week about my ambivalence toward cemeteries (they’re a walk in the park during vertical visits but a sorry place to take up horizontal residence) when the doorbell rang as a Canada Post delivery van dropped off an unexpected package. Dropped from the sky, as it were. Out of the blue.

Inside the bubble wrap was a copy of the late Doris Shadbolt’s The Art of Emily Carr, which remains the quintessential publishing milestone about the eccentric Vancouver Island artist and writer inspired by the wild coastal landscape and the sophisticated artwork of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

Sent by the loving and generous partner — whom I am keenly looking forward to meeting in a post-pandemic world — of a dear friend, the book weaves Shadbolt’s meticulous research among superb reproductions of more than 200 Carr paintings, charcoals and drawings. It also features excerpts from the artist’s voluminous writings, which illuminate her visionary take on existence just as surely as any strokes committed to canvas.

Now, the connection to coincidence might seem as turbulent as one of Carr’s skies at this point, but bear with me as we take a step back into the boneyard.

When we lived in Montreal, my wife and I enjoyed strolling through the scenic and terraced cemeteries that share Mount Royal: the Roman Catholic Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery, the Ashkenazi Jewish cemetery called Shaar Hashomayim, and the non-denominational (though primarily Protestant) Mount Royal Cemetery, which includes on its grounds the Temple Emanu-El Cemetery, a Reform Judaism burial ground.

In Mount Royal Cemetery alone, one can find the graves of many members of Montreal’s social elite: brewing tycoon John Molson, jeweller Henry Birks, former prime minister John Abbott, McCord Museum founder David McCord … and like that. At Notre Dame des Neiges, you can hang out with the ghosts of René Angélil, Robert Bourassa, Thomas D’Arcy McGee or Canadiens greats Maurice Richard and Doug Harvey. Leonard Cohen hangs his hat at Shaar Hashomayim.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the opaque window to eternity.

On a West Island bike ride one day, I stumbled blindly upon the graves of former National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell and Sir Benjamin D’Urban at the National Field of Honour Cemetery in Pointe-Claire.

Campbell is best remembered for suspending Richard in 1955, touching off a riot that helped ignite the Quebec independence movement.

D’Urban, who died in Montreal in 1849 and was originally buried at the Papineau military cemetery, was the governor of the Cape Colony after whom the South African city of Durban was named in 1835. He’d been posted to Montreal as commander of Her Majesty’s forces in British North America two years before his death, during a feared invasion by the U.S.

Who knew?

Turns out that death, like its predecessor, is like a box of chocolates (however stale). On a first visit to a cemetery, you never know who is going to turn up around the next monument. During my father-in-law’s funeral in Burlington, Ont., I was startled to suddenly notice the nearby grave of one of serial killer Paul Bernardo’s victims.

Ross Bay Cemetery — a couple of blocks east of the stately house where Emily Carr grew up and fronting the north shore of the Juan de Fuca Strait that divides the B.C. capital from Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula — is as Victorian as Victoria gets.

A century and a half old, the graveyard features tree-lined avenues with ocean and mountain views to, ahem, you know, spread over 11 hectares. It boasts winding carriageways, and spectacular monuments of marble, sandstone and granite. The cemetery is the final resting place of fabled pioneers (including Gold Rush pioneer Billy Barker and hanging judge Matthew Begbie) and several early B.C. premiers.

Take a leisurely stroll among the pines, elms, ornamental cherries, plums, wandering black-tailed deer and almost 30,000 interments (better pack a lunch), and you will inevitably wind up at Block H Plot 85 E15 — Carr’s terrestrial co-ordinates since her death in 1945 at age 73.

The family plot — which includes the artist, her parents and assorted siblings — is routinely decorated with pine cones, bits of driftwood and chestnuts deposited by admirers. Visitors have filled a glass jar near her memorial plaque with pencils, brushes and painted rocks.

Carr’s monument — which I had been thinking about the morning the Shadbolt book arrived — is inscribed with this paean to nature from her journals:

Dear Mother Earth!

I think I have always

specially belonged to you.

I have loved from babyhood

to roll upon you, to lie with

my face pressed right down

on to you in my sorrows.

I love the look of you and

the smell of you and

the feel of you. When I die

I should like to be in you

uncoffined, enshrouded,

the petals of flowers against

my flesh and you covering

me up.

Wow. That’s exactly how I feel. You too, I'll bet.

Coincidence or what?

I still like it, but this one seems significant.

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