This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.
Early Relationships With Nature
Catharine Parr Traill's clearly autobiographical book, Sketches from Nature; or, Hints to Juvenile Naturalists (1830), reveals that attention to her natural environment was an important feature of her education. All the Strickland children were required by their father to collect and observe flowers, to cultivate gardens and to care for other creatures. It is not surprising then that when the sisters began writing they included nature lore in poems, books and essays.
Catharine's perspective on the natural world was that of scientist and moralist. She was especially attentive to it in her books for children, often pointing out lessons in character that could be gleaned from nature study. She was convinced that through the study of nature, children would learn to "look through nature up to nature's God." It was an outlook that she never relinquished.
Susanna was not exempt from dutiful care of the creatures about their childhood home in Reydon, but her writing reveals that her relationship with nature was a romantic one, articulated in poetic language. In "Tom Wilson's Emigration" in Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna recalls her unwillingness to leave the landscape around Reydon Hall, saying, "It was while reposing beneath those noble trees that I had first indulged in those delicious dreams which are a foretaste of the enjoyments of the spirit-land. In them the soul breathes forth its aspirations in a language unknown to common minds; and that language is Poetry." Her book, Enthusiasm, and many of her early poems reveal this romantic view of nature.
Responses to Canadian Nature
Emigration to the New World offered splendid opportunities for both Catharine and Susanna to develop their relationships with the natural environment. In Susanna's case, the exultation that she experienced on first seeing the "astonishing panorama" of Québec City and the St. Lawrence River soon gave way to loneliness and homesickness, and she sometimes viewed the landscape as a prison. Such feelings did not prevail, however. Roughing It in the Bush more often reveals Susanna's romantic enthusiasm for the "sublimity" and "grandeur" of the Canadian landscape. She also begins to take note of the particular features of her surroundings, recalling in "Phoebe H____, And Our Second Moving" that with the arrival of spring "gorgeous butterflies floated about like winged flowers, and feelings allied to poetry and gladness once more pervaded my heart." Roughing It in the Bush records such feelings in prose and in poetry. Many of the chapters in the book begin and end with poems celebrating the powerful forces of Canadian nature and the human activity that goes on in its midst.
Catharine's relationship with the natural environment was both more constant and more complex than Susanna's. She never ceased to admire the pioneer's heroic struggle to subdue the wild Canadian forest; many of her stories and essays celebrate this process. At the end of The Backwoods of Canada she gives voice to the ambition of the settler to transform the rude Canadian landscape into a land of "fertile fields and groves of trees planted by the hand of taste." Her favourite metaphor for the transformation from rudeness to beauty was a snow-covered landscape. We can find it repeated in letter 13 of The Backwoods of Canada, in the winter section of "In the Canadian Woods" in Pearls and Pebbles, and frequently in her early journals. Catharine's use of such a metaphor also shows us that she was not immune to the charm of the picturesque in her surroundings or to the grandness of lakes and forests. Still, this was not her principal interest.
Catharine's Nature Publications
As in her early work in England, Catharine's approach to the Canadian environment was marked by close attention to details. In letter five of The Backwoods of Canada, dated September 9, 1831, she notes that while the woods may be monotonous there are nevertheless "objects to charm and delight the close observer of nature." Her observations are interspersed with narrative throughout the succeeding letters and letter 14 is devoted exclusively to her botanical discoveries.
Catharine's keen interest in her surroundings never ceased. Her journals offer a rich record of the weather conditions through the passing seasons, of the terrain in which she lived and of the discoveries she made in local flora and fauna. She began to think of herself as a gatherer devoted to preserving a record of what was being lost in the clearing of the land. By 1852 she had written several in her "Forest Gleanings" series. Some of these she described as being about "wild flowers and other matters connected with Canadian Natural History." She also turned to a familiar form, a book for children. In Lady Mary and Her Nurse; or, a Peep Into the Canadian Forest (1856), she conveys a sense of the wonder of the Canadian forest through a dialogue between an adult and a child. Information is interwoven with stories of animals to present moral and spiritual lessons and Catharine's belief in a beneficent creator.
By 1865 Catharine was trying to find a publisher for a manuscript about plant life. Some of it was published in Canadian Wild Flowers -- a work that featured the floral drawings of Agnes FitzGibbon, along with botanical essays by Catharine -- but a more extensive record remained to be published. Studies of Plant Life in Canada; or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain finally appeared in 1885. Once again, Catharine was reliant on the enterprise and collaboration of her niece; she also had assistance and encouragement from two noted men of science -- James Fletcher (1851-1910), a parliamentary librarian, entomologist and botanist, and John Macoun, a botanist and geologist. This book established Catharine as a respected botanist, skilled in describing plant characteristics, habitats and uses, and knowledgeable in the folklore associated with them.
Through the years Catharine was a collector of grasses, mosses and lichens. She created albums in which she pressed and identified plants, often exhibiting them at agricultural fairs, selling them, or giving them as gifts. Long interested in that in the natural world which was hidden or overlooked by the casual observer, Catharine looked to the minute in nature -- the mysterious processes hinted at by fossils in limestone, for example. As early as 1851, in "The Forest Monarch and His Dependents. A Fable" (The Maple Leaf, November 1851) Catherine was writing about the interdependence of all creatures in an ecological system. This is the central theme of many of the essays in Pearls and Pebbles, and is best expressed in its final piece, "Something Gathers up the Fragments":