Time Travelling with My Dad: Searching for Femme Roots in Rural Ontario

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This piece by Andi Schwartz is the third post in the Emotional Ecologies series edited by Sarah York-Bertram and Jessica DeWitt. In this series, contributors were asked to reflect on what role emotion plays in connecting humans to their environment and more-than-human beings.

My dad’s new house is not much smaller than the old one, but it sits on a much smaller lot. This seems to irritate him. Deeply rural and bordering reclusive, he is disturbed by the proximity of neighbours—both human and not.

I make the drive to sit with him on the porch through the dusty summer day. My tires roll and roll over the pavement that slices through the landscape. Travelling away from the massive highway that always delivers me back to this place, the trees begin to appear taller, thicker, older. I start to smile. I feel at home.

It’s the sight of the land—the land of the Mississaugas, but known to settlers like me as Guelph and Puslinch, Ontario—that evokes the feeling of home: the distance between the houses; the fields that stretch beyond them. The space. The trees. Their colours. My forehead softens. My breath deepens. My heart rate slows. Home.

My dad has laid gravel where grass used to grow between the road and his house to make room for his ever-expanding collection of vehicles: the Ford Ranger, the ‘76 Mustang, the 2006 Mustang, and a red one so special it stays covered, tucked away in its protective blanket. I only know its colour from a photograph, and I call it by the wrong name. This irritates him, too.

Maple keys lay scattered across the roof of his shed and pool in clusters along the driveway. Two tall trees that once shaded the yard now lie butchered into pieces heaped in the grass.

“They were dripping on my cars,” he says irritably and sucks his teeth. “Wrecks the paint.”

I watch my brown dog clamber over their remains.

A terrier, she gleefully charges toward a rustle in the bushes.

“Get ‘em,” my dad encourages her. He believes she’s chasing the chipmunk he’s seen dart around his property, which he plans to poison.

“A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, eradicated, annihilated by all means.”

Anna Jameson

“A Canadian settler hates a tree, regards it as his natural enemy, as something to be destroyed, eradicated, annihilated by all means. The idea of useful or ornamental is seldom associated here even with the most magnificent timber tree, such as among the Druids had been consecrated, and among the Greeks would have sheltered oracles and votive temples. The beautiful faith which assigned to every tree in the forest its guardian nymph, to every leafy grove its tutelary divinity, would find no votaries here. Alas! for the Dryads and Hamadryads of Canada!”1

British writer Anna Jameson wrote this observation in her travel memoir that documented her visit to the British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada between 1836 and 1838.

In the same decade, my earliest traceable ancestor was awarded a parcel of land in Puslinch, Ontario for his service to the British Army. According to the records kept by the Puslinch Historical Society, Captain William Wade Leslie, from County Fermanagh in what is now Northern Ireland, fought at the Battle of Waterloo. My dad is very proud of this.

I examine the type-written document I received in a packet from the historical society and see my lineage traced through my dad, his mother, and three more generations back to Leslie. Nearly 200 years passed in the same place.

Puslinch is no bustling metropolis now, but when the Leslies arrived from Ireland, it was still mostly covered with dense forests. My ancestor’s eldest son, William, is credited for establishing the first local post office, an initiative inspired, no doubt, by surviving a harrowing trip to pick up a mis-delivered letter. According to the photocopied newspaper article included in my packet of heritage documents, he set out on foot, got lost, and was chased by wolves. He passed the night in a tree for safety.

Growing up in Puslinch, Ontario, the tamarack stood the tallest on our property that spanned an acre and a quarter. Sometimes also called a “larch,” they say it derives its name from the Algonquin word meaning “wood used for snowshoes.” The tamarack tree is, impressively, Ontario’s only native deciduous conifer. The seeds contained in its cones are feasted on by red crossbills, mice, and, my father’s present foe, pesky chipmunks, while porcupines strip the tamarack trunk of its bark, searching for the layers that taste as sweet as maple sugar.2 Tamarack bark may be boiled and strained to make a tea used as a laxative or diuretic, and that will cure a sore throat if gargled. When applied to the skin, a poultice of its softened remnants can treat sores, burns, swellings, and headaches.3

I know the feeling of bark scraping loose from bough and trunk underneath my foot and the flash of danger cutting into my gut.

I won’t know its name until I’m much older, but what I do know about the tamarack as I run barefoot across this acre and a quarter, is how to climb through its dense branches like the chipmunk. I know the feeling of bark scraping loose from bough and trunk underneath my foot and the flash of danger cutting into my gut. I know about picking its cones, imagining they are berries, and collecting them in a yellow plastic pail.

Many years later, the township will bulldoze the house and the pain will be strange, like fresh cuts slashing across old wounds. Then, the tamarack will appear as a guardian. Woven with the others, creating a shield around the scarred site. Standing so much taller than I remembered.

The tamarack is a healer. Its medicines are many and its company is good.

Anna Brownell Jameson
Mrs. Anna Brownell Jameson, 1844 Salted paper print. Wikimedia Commons.

I think that Anna Jameson was queer. Maybe, more accurately: I feel like Anna Jameson was queer. I tell this to my partner, and he laughs, saying he knew she was a lesbian as soon as I took an interest in her. I follow this feeling in between the lines of her biography and her writings on Upper Canada.

At the age of four, Jameson emigrated with her parents from Ireland to England. She became a governess as a young woman and later a successful writer, known for her literary criticism and travel writing. Her account of life in Upper Canada, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles, is credited as “one of the best existing accounts of Upper Canada in the nineteenth century” by her biographer Clara Thomas.4

Contemporaries with cryptic diarist and notorious lesbian Anne Lister—with whom she also shared the constant search for companionship—Jameson was quickly estranged from her husband, Robert. There gaped an ocean between them for most of their marriage: she stayed in England and Germany while he was posted in colonial Dominica and Upper Canada. Their strained relationship started with a five-year engagement—which Jameson initially broke off so she could, instead, travel through Europe. She was finally wed at age 31 in the year 1825.

According to biographer Clara Thomas, Jameson had a habit of forming intense, one-sided friendships with women. Detailing her zealous pursuit of Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble, Thomas wrote: “The pattern of this friendship establishes a design that was to be repeated at intervals throughout Anna Jameson’s lifetime. She is the seeker and the instigator; the subject of her enthusiasm, at first genuinely attracted and impressed, becomes alarmed and impatient at her insistence and cannot return in full measure her enthusiastic regard.”5

Jameson heaped flatteries on others, too. A Mrs. Proctor wrote, “you spoil me, encourage my vanity” in a letter to Jameson, which first asked, “pray write to me or I shall think that, like many ladies, my letter has lost me my lover”—language that Jameson’s biographer, of course, attributes to “the currently accepted vocabulary for sincere admiration.”6

For the ultimate exchange of emancipation and a financial settlement, Jameson travelled to Upper Canada in 1836 to aid her estranged husband’s promotion to Vice-Chancellor in the Court of Chancery.7 Initially, she conspired to arrange for one of her best and most impassioned German friends, Ottilie von Goethe, to come along and live with her across the Atlantic.

During her brief time in Upper Canada, Jameson’s opinions on local policy and governance infuriated its politicians, as did her refusal to play the wife. She preferred to host intellectual and literary salons. On her summer rambles through Canada in 1837, she also collected the skulls of Indigenous people, lifted directly from their burial grounds.8

I read this last detail and a memory drifts into my mind: my elementary school music teacher, who was also the gym teacher and the only teacher in our school to go by “Ms.” A white lady whose wide gait was chuckled about. I can recall the sight of her ambling down my elementary school hallway in her belted shorts and loafers. She taught us “African drumming,” outfitting our rural Ontario school with an impressive fleet of djembes.  

The queer woman doesn’t belong in the Canadian settler narrative, at least not the one told by the nation itself; I come from a long line of repressed and disapproving Protestants, I like to joke, and one brave truth-teller.

A similar affect shrouds both stories like the wispy grasp of a centuries-old ghost. The queer woman doesn’t belong in the Canadian settler narrative, at least not the one told by the nation itself; I come from a long line of repressed and disapproving Protestants, I like to joke, and one brave truth-teller. Feeling our estrangement, settler queers yearn for something and someplace else.

Jameson, too, found herself a misfit in Upper Canada, Winter Studies being full of “heart-sick longing”9 for her European companions and lamentations that there is “no society in Toronto.”10 Literary scholars Jody Jensen and Rebecca Weaver-Hightower note that it is also her sympathy for the “trees cut down indiscriminately by Canadian settlers”11 that seemed to prove a crucial distinction: Jameson wrote, “The pity I have for the trees in Canada, shows how far I am yet from being a true Canadian.”12

White settler queers have built an entirely new culture from this feeling, learning to relish our deviance and rejoice in our distance from these people, our people. We reach for the elusive elsewhere, but our fingers close too easily around bones that do not belong to us, instruments meant for someone else’s music. Maybe we are not so different from the rest of our people after all. Set apart, perhaps, but not absolved.

Tamarack Sapling
Tamarack (Larix laricina) sapling. “Tamarack Swamp (2)” by Nicholas_T is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I was first called up the trunk of the tamarack by something I couldn’t yet describe. It is 1993, and I have just seen the latest screen adaptation of The Beverly Hillbillies. Ellie May Clampett’s glamour is still strong in my mind: appearing on the big screen with voluminous blonde hair, she swung easily into a tree to cuddle raccoons. The parodic attempt is lost on me. I tie my hair in pigtails and, dressed in a pink cotton skirt baring my knees, I am determined to climb.

My face is flushed and my knees are scraped, but I’ve done it. Balanced jubilantly on a low branch in the tamarack, I holler until my mother emerges from the white vinyl-sided house to witness my victory. She is underwhelmed by my show and perhaps lightly irritated by the interruption, but I am feeling my fantasy. In this moment, in my tree and in my skirt, I have unearthed something I didn’t know was already rooted deep inside of me, something brought alive by this feeling of looking gorgeous, but acting reckless, of feeling glamorous but still rough around the edges.

I’ll know the name “femme” before I know the name “tamarack,” but by then I’ll know that I first felt femme while nestled in the embrace of the tamarack. I’ll know that they will forever be intertwined. The tamarack’s roots. My queer roots. Both embedded here, in this place.

“Sat at the window drawing, or rather not drawing, but with a pencil in my hand. This beautiful Lake Ontario!—my lake—for I begin to be in love with it, and look on it as mine!—it changed its hues every moment, the shades of purple and green fleeting over it, now dark, now lustrous, now pale…”

Anna Jameson, Winter Studies, 163.

It’s the sight of this land that evokes the feeling of home. Because it’s out here, in the country, where I first found my whole self, and where I think my imagined lineage of queer settlers found themselves, too. Often arriving poor, unlucky, or outcast. On lands that didn’t and still don’t belong to us, in lakes and trees that are not our own, but that have graciously held us, anyway.

I watch my brown dog clamber over their remains, the trees which have remained an inconvenience to my own settler ancestors for 200 years. My father is still animated by their same logics, appearing as if puppeteered by their ghosts, espousing their sentiments that have travelled forward in time.

I am hardly different. I see myself, too, nearly perfectly preserved in Jameson’s renderings of nineteenth century settler life: walking along the already too narrow streets of Toronto—ever a “fourth or fifth rate provincial town, with the pretensions of a capital city”13—completely ignorant of European sophistication, harbouring the puzzling belief that winter is the best, most sociable season, and raised to admire a culture of constant labour. Amused to find such accurate representations of my family, of myself, already alive in Jameson’s pages of history, I have no choice but to fold to the evidence and admit: I belong, deeply, to settler culture.

Set apart, but not absolved.

Before I could ever decide whether they inconvenienced me or not, the trees taught me to be queer, becoming a critical rhizome in my particular pink skirt-pigtails-tamarack-Beverly Hillbillies femme assemblage.

Before I could ever decide whether they inconvenienced me or not, the trees taught me to be queer, becoming a critical rhizome in my particular pink skirt-pigtails-tamarack-Beverly Hillbillies femme assemblage. I watch the dog. I remember the tamarack. I remember my roots. Tracing them delivers not absolution for the sins of settler-colonialism, but, rather, reveals the depth of my own debt to this land.

Feature Image: “File:006Little Lake, Puslinch, Ontario.JPG” by Laslovarga is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Acknowledgements: Parts of this essay were written in the workshops “You Are Nature” hosted by Andrea Routley at Glad Day Bookshop and “Writing is Magic” hosted virtually by Raechel Anne Jolie.


1 Anna Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1838), 64.

2 “Tamarack – Larix laricina,” The Arboretum, University of Guelph, accessed June 8, 2023, https://arboretum.uoguelph.ca/thingstosee/trees/tamarack.

3 “An introduction to Tamarack Trees & Traditions,” NativeTech:Native American Technology and Art, accessed June 8, 2023, https://www.nativetech.org/willow/tamarack/tamarack.html.

4 Clara Thomas, Love and Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), viv.

5 Thomas, Love and Work Enough, 42.

6 Thomas, Love and Work Enough, 43.

7 Kevin Hutchings, Transatlantic Upper Canada: Portraits in Literature, Land, and British-Indigenous Relations (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020), 111.

8 Hutchings, Transatlantic Canada.

9 Jameson, Winter Studies, 16.

10 Jameson, Winter Studies, 65.

11 Jody Jensen and Rebecca Hightower-Weaver, “Botany and the Woman Colonizer in Catharine Parr Traill’s Backwoods of Canada and Anna Brownell Jameson’s Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada.” Settler Colonial Studies 11, no. 2 (2021) 248. https://doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2021.1881343.

12 Anna Jameson, Sketches in Canada and Rambles Among the Red Men (London: Spottiswoodes and Shaw, 1852), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35224/35224-h/35224-h.htm.

13 Jameson, Winter Studies, 65.

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Andi Schwartz is the Coordinator of the Centre for Feminist Research at York University, where she organizes the Critical Femininities Research Cluster, the Femme Scholars Series, and the annual Critical Femininities conference. Andi has a PhD and MA in Gender, Feminist, and Women's Studies from York University, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University. Her academic work has been published in Punk and Post Punk, Feminist Media Studies, Social Media + Society, First Monday, Feral Feminisms, Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology, and others. Andi lives in Toronto with her dogs.

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