[permaculture] "If We Would Read It Aright": Traill's "Ladder to Heaven

Wesley Roe and Marjorie Lakin Erickson lakinroe at silcom.com
Sat Nov 27 10:01:38 EST 2004

"If We Would Read It Aright": Traill's "Ladder to Heaven" 

This essay examines ways in which Catharine Parr Traill's references to 
plants reveal her personal, philosophical, cultural, social, and moral 
views, while conveying her own conscious and unconscious feelings about the 
conflict involved in her position as a colonizing and colonized woman in 
the Canadian landscape. Traill's references are introduced and 
contextualized through a discussion of examples of the plants and flowers 
described and used by the other "bush ladies": Anna Jameson, Susanna 
Moodie, and Anne Langton.

Le prsent article examine comment les rfrences aux plantes de Catharine 
Parr Traill rvlent ses opinions personnelles, philosophiques, culturelles, 
sociales et morales ainsi que ses sentiments conscients et inconscients au 
su] et du conflit pos par sa situation de femme colonisante et colonise au 
Canada. Les rfrences de M^sup me^ Traill sont prsentes et mises en contexte 
dans le cadre d'une discussion sur des exemples des plantes et fleurs 
dcrites et utilises par les autres dames de la brousse : Anna Jameson, 
Susanna Moodie et Anne Langton.

Catharine Parr Traill uses a literary discourse to introduce her study of 
Canadian plants and landscapes:

Every plant, flower, and tree has a simple history of its own, not without 
its interest if we would read it aright. It forms a page in the great 
volume of Nature which lies open before us, and without it there would be a 
blank,-in nature there is no space left unoccupied. (Traill 1885, 1)

Traill's language strongly encourages readers to "read" nature as a type of 
text. Her vocabulary invites us to approach the "volume of Nature" as we do 
the written word, treating each "plant, flower, and tree" as a single page 
making up a complete work. Her belief is so explicit that it would be 
negligent not to note her language and her forceful connection here and 
elsewhere between the "pages" and "volumes" of nature and literature.1 Her 
conviction about "reading it [plant/page] aright" foregrounds the text 
itself, suggesting that there are obvious clues and signs on the plant or 
page that can lead us to "correct" readings. The relationship between the 
reader and the page is obviously central to the "correct" interpretation of 
the text, which relies on the reader's careful attention to the details of 
the single page and the connections among pages. Traill's comment that 
there is "no space left unoccupied" asserts clearly the Rabelaisian 
sentiment that nature abhors a vacuum. It is therefore incumbent on the 
reader of nature to participate and respond, and it is this reader-text 
relationship that results in the occupation of spaces that might appear 
empty at first glance-bare forest floors and blank paper at the end of 
chapters, for example. Empty space exists only for the unengaged reader, 
who lacks imagination, knowledge, and a holistic view and who thus fails to 
perceive connections and relationships. The reader must fill the empty 
spaces through a type of "reader response," creating meaning based on a 
relationship with the work that includes a knowledge of the surrounding 
textual and natural environments. This knowledge reveals life even in the 
blanks and spaces, the absence of plants and words conveying as much 
meaning and significance as their presence when the dynamic position of the 
reader within the textual "ecosystem" is acknowledged.

More than a century and a half ago, Traill was aware that she addressed an 
interdisciplinary audience, and she attempted to appeal to the expertise 
and interest of both the literary and the scientific reader. This article 
today in the Journal of Canadian Studies addresses a similar readership, 
giving a current relevance to Traill's explanation in her 1868 preface to 
Canadian Wild Flowers:

The scientific reader may possibly expect a more learned description of the 
plants and may notice many defects and omissions; while others who are 
indifferent to the subject, may on the other hand think that there are too 
many botanical terms introduced. It is difficult to please two parties. 
(Traill 1868, 8)

She goes on to hope for the best and to wish the reader pleasure in a 
volume that obviously explores both botanical and aesthetic issues. The 
preface also makes it clear that while taxonomical accuracy and scientific 
detachment have their virtues, the authorial perspective is a very personal 
one. Our purpose here is to study this authorial perspective, concentrating 
on how botanical references reveal Traill's personal, philosophical, 
cultural, and social views. We argue that Traill's references to plants and 
flowers are highly metaphorical and symbolic, particularly as they reveal 
her conscious and unconscious feelings about the conflict involved in her 
position as a colonized and colonizing woman in a patriarchal Canadian 
society and landscape. If we "read it aright," Traill's thoughtful and 
perceptive observations and analysis of the position of Canadian plants and 
flowers within their ecosystems reveal assessments of her own position and 
circumstances in the "new world."

In "'Splendid Anachronism': The Record of Catharine Parr Traill's Struggles 
as a Nineteenth-Century Botanist," Michael Peterman concludes by writing:

... she is also the integrator of those literary and oral traditions (both 
rural and native) that reflect and celebrate a holistic sense of nature's 
divine and conservative other. The result is that, except among observers 
of similar inclinations, her work as natural historian has fallen between 
the disciplinary stools of botany and literature both in her century and in 
our own. Recognition and understanding of her commitment and achievement 
still await Catharine ParrTraill. (1990, 183)

Similarly, in her paper "Science in Canada's Backwoods: Catharine Parr 
Traill," Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley suggests that "in the 1990s, it is time 
to reevaluate her [Traill's] work" (Ainley 1997, 80).2 In his discussion, 
Peterman provides a comprehensive summary of the assessments and treatments 
of Traill's botanical work in her own time, pointing out how she suffered 
from prejudice against her gender and her amateur status. Despite support, 
praise, and advice from established botanists such as John Macoun and James 
Fletcher, Traill remained a "natural historian" (Peterman 1990, 177) along 
the lines of Gilbert White and Isaak Walton rather than a scientific 
botanist or a botanical scientist. This role was partially constructed for 
her by those personal circumstances that limited her opportunities and by 
her patriarchal society, but it was also self- imposed to some extent by 
her own preferences and inclinations. When prevailing scientific methods 
did not fit or work, she discarded them, well aware that she was doing so 
and even drawing her reader's attention to her rejection of an exclusively 
scientific system of her day in favour of a more holistic approach.3 The 
role of amateur natural historian as opposed to Darwinian scientist 
provided her with the freedom to observe, order, and describe plants in an 
ecological manner in a world in which she, like the soil and the air, 
interacted with the plants rather than simply identified, named, and 
collected them. Ainley argues that Traill falls within the tradition of 
American women science writers who "challenged the paternalistic system of 
western science" as "part of the emerging North American trend of long-term 
life-history studies which, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, 
were to complement and to some extent supersede the collection-based study 
of taxonomy" (1997, 93). Both Peterman and Ainley insist on an originality 
and a value in Traill's botanical approach that have not yet been 
thoroughly explored or understood, Peterman drawing our attention to "the 
gentle way in which she blended her scientific and literary interests" 
(1990, 183) and Ainley claiming that Traill's "writing provides a 
postcolonial alternative to earlier western scientific texts" (1997, 93). 
Indeed, a strong sense of Traill as an almost prescient ecologist and 
feminist emerges from her resistance to an exclusively colonial approach to 
science and nature. She insists on an interdisciplinary and ecological 
style and viewpoint.

Neither the literary nor the botanical critic has seemed very willing to 
take on the interdisciplinary task of closely examining the individual 
literary and textual specimens within Traill's work. Elizabeth Thompson has 
done so in her introductory essay to Traill's "Something Gathers up the 
Fragments"; she analyzes specific passages and descriptions in order to 
describe Traill's contradictory response to nature. Thompson suggests that 
Traill is conscious of these contradictions that arise from clashes between 
her attempts as a writer to "document and thereby indirectly to preserve 
the Canadian wilderness" and her actions as a "pioneer settler," which 
"helped to destroy the natural habitat" (1998, 140). Referring in detail to 
Traill's "Fragments" essay, Thompson suggests that Traill "would claim that 
man has a right to fashion new world nature to serve his needs, but she 
also sees a stable, functioning order within the indigenous landscape, one 
which is destabilized and eventually destroyed by human intervention" 
(1998, 143). Thompson looks at examples from "Fragments"and elsewhere that 
give voice to Traill's awareness of the dichotomy between preservation/ 
conservation and cultivation/civilization, concluding that "despite her 
Christian faith, Traill was never entirely comfortable with an intrusively 
imperial ecological role" (148). This feeling of discomfort and 
contradiction is expressed in Traill's philosophical musings, but it is 
also apparent when Traill describes individual plants and their habitats. 
In such passages, she places herself in the ecosystem as the human agent 
who, by observing the plants in order to create and communicate their 
descriptions and stories, both preserves and threatens their existence. 
Many references go further, however, revealing Traill's tension within a 
colonial system that can restrain and limit both plants and women by 
failing to see them in context and by ignoring important connections and 
relationships. As Traill insists on a holistic approach to the natural 
ecosystem, so we as readers need to approach Traill's text with a similar 
openness to connections, relationships, and contexts.

Contextualizing Traill's Plants: The Literary Landscapes of the Ontario 
"Bush Ladies"

Traill is not alone in her use of literal and literary plants to express 
her own situation; she is joined by Anna Jameson, Susanna Moodie, and Anne 
Langten, referred to as the "bush ladies" by Molly Thorn.4 All four writers 
refer to plants and flowers in ways that alert us to their evaluations of 
their own relationships with the surrounding landscape, community, and 
country. Anna Jameson, for example, trying to describe her feelings of 
disappointment upon seeing Niagara Falls, uses a botanical analogy, 
declaring "I am no longer Anna-I am metamorphosed-I am translated-I am ... 
a fat weed growing on Lethe's bank" (1838, 57). Such use of plant and 
flower imagery is of course a familiar trope in nineteenth-century British 
literature,5 and it is not surprising that Traill and others should fall 
into such conventions. The difference in nineteenth-century Ontario,6 
however, is that the plants are new, earthy, and real as well as aesthetic 
and symbolicthey are rooted in the ground and entangled in the daily lives 
of these writers, who must deal with them on both a practical and a 
metaphorical level. Closely intertwined, the plant of the garden and the 
plant of the text often describe a literal colonization of the landscape or 
environment that reflects the writer's own colonized condition and 
colonizing activities. These references, planted firmly and prominently by 
these writers, take on layered nuances and meanings for a contemporary 
reader, who is able to look back at nineteenth-century culture and 
horticulture with a postcolonial perspective, noting the impact of 
colonization on the landscape and the community. This is knowledge that we 
cannot sweep aside or ignore as readers in the twenty-first century. 
Indeed, many of these nineteenth-century botanical references anticipate 
the eventual impacts of colonization in an almost prophetic way, inviting 
us to take into account the changes that have occurred in the period of 
time between the nineteenth-century writing of the text and a 
twenty-first-century reading.

In order to contextualize Traill's references, it is helpful to look at a 
few examples of the ways in which the other "bush ladies" were describing 
and recording plants, translating them from the soil to the page. Anna 
Jameson, a visitor to Ontario from December 1836 until August 1837, travels 
through the landscape as a tourist instead of settling into it as an 
immigrant. Her observations of real plants, along with her literary use of 
metaphorical plants in Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, reflect 
her positions as a tourist moving across an unfamiliar setting and as a 
woman making a transition out of an unhappy marriage. Jameson repeatedly 
comments on the prolific displays of wildflowers and plants growing "along 
the margin of the forest" (1838, 174). She marvels that these lavish 
displays, which are "cultivate[d] with such care in our gardens" in 
England, "[flourish] in wild luxuriance in Canada" (238). It is impossible 
not to notice the similarity between Jameson herself and these flowers to 
which she is so strongly attracted. The unusual opportunity to travel in 
the Canadian wilderness provides her with the same free environment 
afforded to the wildflowers and plants, all parties breaking free from the 
restraints of English cultivation and tradition, leaving behind the rules 
and conventions governing the practice of horticulture and the institution 
of marriage.

As Jameson works with her emerging independence and "wild" temperament, she 
focusses on those elements of nature that share the condition of 
"flourishing in wild luxuriance" (238) that she herself is enjoying in the 
Canadian wilderness. Jameson is concerned with more than simply the 
pleasing aesthetics of the flowers when she tells us that she "can hardly 
describe in words" (237) the impact of the forest borders when viewed from 
the road. Noting that the scenes are "all either exciting to the fancy, or 
oppressive to the spirits, according to the mood one may be in" (237), 
Jameson obviously responds to nature by imposing her own mood and emotions 
onto the scene, and in Wordsworthian fashion receives back from nature part 
of what she has invested.7 Her own feelings of freedom and "flourishing" 
are duplicated in the flowers, which initially draw her attention, and are 
subsequently invested even further with the qualities she is enjoying in 
herself, thereby increasing their power, relevance, and attraction. The 
result is more of an identification than an observation, or an 
identification arising from the process of observation. It is not 
surprising that Jameson, positioned temporarily between England and Canada, 
notes the large populations of plants found in these margins or "edges" 
that separate and differentiate contrasting environments, in this case the 
forest and the road. Theories of permaculture recognize that a border or 
edge, defined as the place where "species, climate, soils, slope, or any 
natural conditions or artificial boundaries meet" hosts a "productive 
landscape" because "the resources from both systems can be used" (Mollison 
1994, 26). It is this productive landscape to which Jameson responds and 
with which she identifies. Jameson, an English traveller visiting Ontario 
benefits as the profuse flowers do from both systems or cultures as she 
moves through the edges between them.

As Jameson is attracted to the intense activity of the "margins," she is 
also drawn to various species of lichen, a plant community that works to 
transform and change the landscape. Both useful and aesthetically pleasing, 
the lichen draws Jameson's attention to spaces that are being transformed 
and broken down in ways that parallel her own transitions and changes. 
Journeying down Lake Huron to Manitoulin Island, Jameson refers to 
"successive ledges of picturesque rocks, all fringed with trees and bushes, 
and clothed in many places with a species of gray lichen nearly a foot 
deep" (1838, 492). With what she refers to as "a sort of anticipative 
wisdom" (492), she gathers the lichen, which she later places on the firm 
and naked rock upon which she sleeps. She refers to a second practical use 
of lichen later in the journey, telling us that the party "dined on a wet 
rock, almost covered with that species of lichen which the Indians call 
wa'ac, and the Canadians tripe de roche because, when boiled until soft, 
and then fried in grease, it makes a dish not unpalatable" (532). In 
sleeping and dining on the lichen-covered rock, Jameson positions herself 
with the lichens, which are "dual organisms usually composed of a fungus 
and an alga" (Raven et al. 1993, 69) and classified as pioneer communities8 
because they are "the first organisms to colonize bare rock" (70). 
Jameson's "sort of anticipative wisdom" draws attention to a symbolic 
significance in the lichen beyond its practical use as mattress and food. 
Like the human pioneer community, lichens "help to break the rock apart, 
beginning the process of soil formation" (Raven et al. 1993, 70). The 
literal "soil formation" resulting from the interaction between the lichen 
and rock is comparable to the agricultural activity of the human community, 
breaking down surrounding material in order to make way for the 
establishment and development of a new culture. Primary succession 
initiated by lichens on rocks is remarkably similar to the human pioneer 
community's effect on the Ontario environment in general:

All of these changes [initiated by lichen on rock]-increased biomass, soil 
development, water retention, and an increased number of life forms-work 
together to moderate the harsh conditions under which the pioneer community 
has lived. (Raven et al. 1993, 70-71)

Consideration of the colony of lichen on the rock, often succeeded by moss, 
raises questions about the symbiosis-"any intimate relationship or 
association between members of two or more different species" (Raven at al. 
1993, 67)-of this co-evolutionary system-"the interdependent evolution of 
two or more species that occurs as a result of their interactions" (65). 
The fungus and alga of the lichen enjoy the symbiotic relationship of 
mutualism, each giving the other something that is required. The rock, as 
the abiotic partner, is not separate or hostile, but is the place or space 
upon which mutualism provides conditions for habitat change and succession, 
resulting in the introduction of moss, ferns, grasses, and herbs. Jameson's 
interest in the lichen directs us to the layered relevance of this 
botanical analogy. The parallels between the lichen's colonization of the 
rock and the European colonization of Ontario are clear to the reader, and 
appropriately situate cultural colonization in the agricultural activity 
that changed the face of the landscape.

Anna Jameson's night spent o\n the bed of lichen placed on top of the rock 
becomes complex in terms of relationships and symbiosis. The campfire, out 
of control, threatens to spread to the lichen bed, while the men clearing a 
space to prevent the threat are seen as participating in a moment of 

The waves, the trees and bushes and fantastic rocks, and the figures and 
faces of the men, caught in the brilliant light as it flashed upon them 
with a fitful glare-the rest being lost in deepest shadow. Wildly 
magnificent it was! beyond all expression beautiful, and awful too!... I 
never beheld such a scene. (Jameson 1838, 492)

The excitement is caused by Jameson's feelings of insignificance in the 
face of the power of nature. This experience of the sublime involves an 
active response to the element inspiring sublimity as she prolongs and 
intensifies the experience. As landscapes are colonized, to quote Michael 
Pollen's recent book, The Botany of Desire, we experience the opposite of 
sublimity-"the satisfaction of having our way with nature," and we revel in 
a sense of our power as we "experience the pleasure of beholding the 
reflection of our labour and intelligence in the land" (Pollen 2001, 
183-84). For Anna Jameson, the power of this situation lies in nature's 
resistance to colonization as it ceases to reflect human labour and 
intelligence. Instead, nature threatens the human presence even as it 
satisfies the human observer's emotional and aesthetic desires. The ash 
from the fire contains prime nutrients that will eventually help to 
establish or alter the soil matrix, essentially developing the soil 
directly beneath the feet of the human forms illuminated by the fire. The 
result is a significant change to the inhabited space in which this 
exchange has occurred, leading to secondary succession, "ecological 
succession in a habitat that has previously been inhabited" (Raven et al. 
1993, 71). As the borders and margins reflect Jameson's position of 
transition between two worlds or states, so the lichen on the rock and the 
lichen threatened by fire parallel Jameson's personal and deliberate 
efforts to transform her old landscapes into new ones.

Traill's sister, Susanna Moodie, is also dealing with old and new 
landscapes. Although resigned to her new home, Moodie remains divided 
between Canada and England and thus finds herself intensely interested in 
relationships and exchanges between the old and new world, including both 
cultural and horticultural emigrations and immigrations. For example, she 
sends pieces of painted fungus back to England as curiosities (1852, 
443-44).9 The fungus is potentially much more than merely a backdrop to be 
painted or a curiosity to be offered to readers; the sending of fungus can 
be seen as an unconscious reflection of Moodie's yearning to re-root 
herself in England. It is impossible to return herself, but she sends back 
her art in the form of books and painted curiosities to root itself in the 
minds of her audience and admirers; she seems to remain unaware of the 
potential sporing and spreading of the actual fungus itself.10 We 
understand that the fungus has not made a complete transformation from 
nature to art and is thus not subject to the control, requirements, and 
parameters of Moodie's skills and creativity. It is still a viable, 
independent life form that can potentially perform and act according to its 
natural properties. The fungus suggests a "re-patriation" and proliferation 
of herself through the "rooting" of her art in England, and, ironically, a 
potential role reversal in which the new colony colonizes the old world 

Moodie tells us with wonder that she gathers "rare specimens of strange 
plants and flowers" from the Canadian wilderness and finds the "rapid 
advance of vegetation in Canada [is] astonishing" (1852, 180). She depicts 
herself as becoming increasingly aware not only of the numbers and habits 
of Canadian plant life, but also of the necessity of approaching the 
natural world with pragmatism rather than simply aesthetic appreciation if 
she is to adapt and survive. Her interest in the question asked by 
Brian-the-Still-Hunter-why the "little, fat, punchy man" (Moodie 1852, 201) 
prefers lichens "to fine flowers" (203)-provides Moodie with an opportunity 
to let her reader know that she is aware of the potential practical value 
of these lichens (Kricher and Morrison 1988, 133-34). Her movement towards 
the practical is also reflected in her discussion of the dandelion later in 
the text, which leaves no doubt that she herself aids in the "rapid advance 
of vegetation in Canada," having become a Canadian force working with the 
vegetation rather than a detached observer "gazing" at it with a purely 
aesthetic appreciation. Moodie refers to the dandelion as "this neglected 
but most valuable plant" (1852, 377). The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) 
belongs to the family Compositae, the largest family of flowering plants, 
and one which may be "the most recent family to appear on earth" (Peterson 
and McKenny 1968, xxviii). Composite flowering plants "comprise 
approximately one-tenth of all plant species" and are themselves an 
"unrivalled evolutionary success stor[y]" (Kricher and Morrison 1988, 108). 
The dandelion is an "alien" species in Canada, most likely entering the 
country from Europe (Szczawinski and Turner 1988, 64), and according to one 
account "brought to the New World by traders with the Hudson's Bay Company 
at Fort Churchill" (Silverman 1977, 51); the dandelion can thus be seen as 
analogous to the aggressive colonial proliferation of European culture in 
Canada, as it sends down its taproots, overpowering and pushing aside other 
species, both native and introduced, that are unable to compete and adapt 
as efficiently.

More importantly, however, the dandelion provides an opportunity for Moodie 
and others to respond to it as Canadians rather than as Europeans. Moodie 
recognizes that all parts of the dandelion are useful, indeed edible. Ever 
open to ways to save time and energy, she delights in discovering that if 
"planted in trenches and blanched," the dandelion provides the equivalent 
of an English salad "endive," but "is more hardy and requires less care" 
than the English equivalent (1852, 377). She attempts to predict the fate 
of the dandelion in Ontario:

the time will come ... when this hardy weed, with its golden flowers and 
curious seed-vessels, which form a constant plaything to the little 
children rolling around and luxuriating among the grass, in the sunny month 
of May, will be transplanted into our gardens, and tended with due care. 
(Moodie 1852, 377)

This passage resonates with irony. "Tended with due care" for us today 
means the systemic application of a variety of herbicides designed to rid 
our environment of what is considered by many urban Ontario dwellers to be 
the most pestilential of weeds. Instead of "luxuriating among the grass" 
with their "constant plaything," children must heed the warning signs 
declaring that their natural playgrounds have been poisoned. Instead of 
providing an environment and appreciation for the practical purposes and 
applications of this plant, we have attacked it as a hostile "alien," 
forcing it to conform to our arbitrary standards of beauty as we position 
it as an enemy and victim. In Edible Garden Weeds of Canada, the authors 
lament that "there are many people on this continent who are prejudiced 
against dandelions, both as a flower and as a vegetable" (Szczawinski and 
Turner 1988, 66). Maida Silverman, in A City Herbal, maintains that "when 
most people think of a 'weed' it is the Dandelion that most often comes to 
mind" (1977, 49). Listed as a weed in Frankton and Mulligan's Weeds of 
Canada (1987), the dandelion is also classified as a "landscape weed" in 
the Landscape Module of the Ontario Pesticide Training Certification, which 
states that "complete weed control in urban areas is often a matter of 
aesthetics and the opinion of those using and managing the area" (Ontario 
Ministry of the Environment 2002, 2-81). Clearly the prevailing aesthetic 
is counter to Moodie's, but what is underscored is the uninformed nature of 
the aesthetic. We attempt to destroy or erase the dandelion from our 
"place," oblivious to warnings from Susanna Moodie and present-day urban 
ecologists, who understand the futility of such attempts to control or 
destroy nature. Despite the multitude of practical purposes listed by 
Moodie and confirmed by present-day science (Foster and Duke 2000, 145), 
the dandelion remains perhaps less understood now than it was in Moodie's 

Anne Langton, another of Traill's contemporaries, recorded the events of 
her life on the shores of Sturgeon Lake from 1837-1846; in her writing, she 
is concerned with creating a domestic space in the landscape, referring to 
flowers and plants as they are tamed and cultivated in order to be brought 
into harmonious existence with her Ontario life and household. She observes 
with interest the successful adaptation and journey of such plants from 
wilderness to home. The ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), like the 
dandelion, is a composite and contains anti-inflammatory components 
rendering it useful for a number of medicinal purposes (Foster and Duke 
2000, 96-97). Like the dandelion, the daisy can also cause dermatological 
reactions upon contact, warning perhaps that surface appearances can be 
deceiving and plants are not always as innocuous as they seem. Daisies are 
now one of the most familiar of all roadside and meadow wildflowers, but 
Anne Langton records seeing her first Canadian daisy three years after her 
arrival in the country:

The flower that has been contemplated with most delight this season was a 
little daisy, which has unaccountably found its way on to our grass plot. 
We had none of us seen one for years, and it was greeted by all, in parlour 
and kitchen, as an old friend. (Langton 1950, 128)

Although Langton suggests that the daisy is "u\naccountably" present, its 
arrival can certainly be accounted for, the daisy having made its way into 
Ontario by both accident and design, coaxed and cultivated along the way." 
The fact that the daisy is an "old friend" suggests its old world origins; 
indeed, like Langton, it "immigrated" to Canada as an introduced species 
from Europe (Niering and Olmstead 1979, 372). Unlike Susanna Moodie, who 
identifies the daisy with the old world and yearns with homesickness to 
"again trod the daisied meadows of England" (1852, 89), Langton welcomes 
the daisy to her Ontario garden and into her home. The original aesthetic 
gaze may have taken place outdoors or from the indoor parlour and kitchen 
out to the grass plot, but Langton is not content to settle for a gaze 
alone, as presumably the flowers are gathered and brought inside to join 
"more plants in the house" (1950, 189).

For the present-day reader, there is irony in Langton's obvious delight in 
her old friend. Undoubtedly, she nurtured and cultivated the plant, 
although its subsequent history certainly did not make this necessary in 
order for it to flourish. In doing so she introduces, or reintroduces to 
her mind, the very "semi- civilization" that she foresees as dooming women:

As long as the lady is necessarily the most active member of her household 
she keeps her ground from her utility; but when the state of 
semi-civilization arrives, and the delicacies of her table, and the 
elegancies of her person become her chief concern and pride, then she must 
fall, and must be contented to be looked upon as belonging merely to the 
decorative department of the establishment and valued accordingly. (Langton 
1950, 128)

Perhaps the daisy is the fitting symbol for a nineteenth-century 
"gentlewoman's progress." The gentlewoman's primary appeal over time came 
to rest on the "elegancies of her person" (128), and as with any 
"gentlewoman" in "semi-civilized" society, woe betide her if she should 
step outside her "department." In the decades following its arrival, the 
ox-eye daisy colonized Ontario's meadows and roadsides, becoming so 
prolific that by 1892 the Ontario Department of Agriculture declared it a 
noxious weed. The "Act to Prevent the Spread of Noxious Weeds" of 1911 
decreed that "it shall be the duty of every occupant of land or... owner, 
to cut down and destroy all Canada thistles, oxeye daisy, wild oats, 
ragweed and burdock growing on his land" (Grady 1995, 159). The 1911 act 
declared it to be so "troublesome" that owners responsible for having it on 
their property were "liable to a fine of not less than $10 nor more than 
$20" (1995, 160). Once cultivated, the daisy, like the gentlewoman, is 
encouraged to decorate, but only within its prescribed place and station.12

Anne Langton notes the effect of the decaying vegetation caused by the 
clearing of the forest and other forms of human interference, including 
"the construction of a dam and locks at Bobcaygeon" (1950, 192). The result 
of the "immense amount of new decaying matter exposed to the sun" is a 
"visitation of ague intensified into fever" (1950, 193), claiming the lives 
and health of many.13 Langton implies with accuracy that human interference 
in nature has been thoughtless and careless, and she cannot resist the 
temptation to use the situation in order to point out the indispensable 
position of women: "Now the last woman about the place is on the sick list, 
and it is much more difficult to let women's work stand still than men's 
work. John has made up his mind that nothing could be done on the farm, but 
no bread! no butter! no clean clothes!-this is another matter" (Langton 
1950, 194).

Langton's references to the daisy and to the ague-causing, decaying 
vegetable matter draw the reader's attention to the decorative and 
practical roles assigned to the nineteenth-century female in the Ontario 
household. Moodie's botanical discussions often convey her determination to 
interact with nature in a pragmatic manner in order to survive and adapt as 
a female settler and gentlewoman in the new world, while Jameson's 
identifications with plants indicate the freedom from convention that she 
and other women are able to enjoy in Canada. In each case, the plants act 
as indicator species within the text, much as they do in natural 
ecosystems. An indicator species, according to the OED (online), is a 
"group of plants or animals whose presence acts as a sign of particular 
environmental conditions." Once "we recognize a species as an indicator of 
a certain habitat, what we are saying is that this species is biologically 
adapted to survive under the conditions imposed upon it in that area" 
(Kricher and Morrison 1988, 11), and thus provides insight into those 
conditions. Similarly, the textual plant offers clues about its context, 
providing information about the position of the individual woman, not only 
with respect to her home and family, but also within the larger cultural 
and domestic context of nineteenth-century Ontario society.

"Reading It Aright"

Like Langton, Traill also notices decay and decomposition, but her 
knowledge of botany and nature affords her a much more comprehensive and 
accurate analysis than that resulting from Langton's descriptions. Traill 
can write of the layered story of succession and evolution in a way that 
takes into account relationships amongst various elements in the ecosystem 
as well as the relationships between past, present, and future. In The 
Backwoods of Canada and in the short essays "A Glance Within the Forest" 
and "Gathering up the Fragments," Traill examines the process of succession 
in the Ontario forest with an ecologist's eye, observing that "the same 
plants do not grow on cleared land that formerly occupied the same spot 
when it was covered with forest- trees" (1836, 168). She notes the 
"distinct class of vegetation [that] makes its appearance as soon as the 
fire passes over the ground," and observes that "as one generation falls 
and decays, new ones of a different character spring up in their place" 
(1836, 168). In "Something Gathers up the Fragments," she insists on 
peeling back the layers of place and time in order to examine the material 
that has yielded to and nourished what follows. She analyzes the observable:

The elements and the wood of the tree have fed the lichens and mosses. The 
mosses have been a warm sheltering home for myriads of insect larvae, which 
have gathered up many fragments during their infant state, all tending to 
reduce the wood to the earthy condition which should enter into other 
forms. (Traill 1894, 240-41)

She is also able to incorporate dynamic relationships and interchanges that 
are not visually apparent, as seen in her description of the way the tree 
roots provide sustenance and the way certain parts of the tree replenish 
the earth and purify the air (Traill 1894, 238). Traill's awareness of the 
species, relationships, and processes in the natural world demands that she 
include herself as a living part of the ecosystem; such inclusions provide 
textual clues about her own judgement of herself and her activities. The 
textual plant in Traill's work functions as an indicator species 
incorporating her presence in the ecosytem, rather than treating her as a 
symbolic referent separate from nature. This is no simple or distanced 
observation of an external world. Neither are the resulting metaphors tired 
and overused literary conventions. Traill's immersion in the world she 
observes, names, collects, describes, cultivates, preserves, and loves 
imbues her text with the vitality and energy of the relationship itself, 
which is complex and dynamic. The textual indicator species reflect the 
range and variety of the natural species and reveal Traill's acknowledged 
and unacknowledged feelings and assessments about her interaction with the 
natural world she both preserves and cultivates.

Strongly attached to the plants and flowers that seem to attract her, 
Traill receives but resists botanical messages of environmental integrity, 
"acknowledging [the] necessity" of the "continual destruction of the native 
trees" (1874, 250) that lay the groundwork for the succession that takes 
place on the forest floor. The diction used in the references to the forest 
floor as "a kindly nursing mother" (1874, 250) and to the after-fire growth 
as "the new race of vegetables" (1874, 247) suggests European or human 
colonization. Regret for what is lost in both the botanical and the human 
world, such as indigenous plants and family or friends, for example, is 
repressed even as it repeatedly surfaces in Traill's concern or obsession 
with the process of decay and new growth. In describing the new, she pays 
homage to the old-to the "mass of fallen timber, broken limbs, and decaying 
branches heaped across each other in wild confusion, through which many 
young saplings are thrusting up their plumy heads" (1874, 244-45). 
Eventually acknowledging her position and her participation in the 
succession, she refuses to allow the regret to overwhelm her, even though 
her primary reactions to the plants themselves lead her in this direction. 
She uses these emotions and reactions to force herself forward as she 
repeatedly reacts against them and represses them to such an extent that 
the reader realizes it is a continuous and deliberate process. It allows 
her to resist but not ignore her responses to the botanical activity 
surrounding and implicating her. This resistance constitutes the conflict 
that keeps Traill in a state of tension as one who is both champion and 
adversary of the plants she loves.

Although deeply involved in the forest floor of Ontario and the succession 
of new vegetation over old, Traill cannot help but acknowledge Europe, 
rooting her own references in the Linnean system. In "A Glance Within the 
Forest," she refers to the twinflower (Linnae borealis), now the national 
flower of Sweden, as the "sweet flower so dear to the great father of 
botany whose names i\t bears" (1874, 249). Linnae borealis, which has low 
germination rates and requires up to a decade to reach maturity, is 
classified as a dominant understory or indicator species, providing 
information about the ecosystem in which it is found (Kricher and Morrison 
1988, 41). The placement of the reference to Linnae borealis in Traill's 
essay acts as a textual indicator in that it is followed by a reference to 
Mitchella repens (commonly known as partridgeberry or squaw-vine) (1874, 
249). The twinflower and partridgeberry are referenced as a pair by Traill, 
who emphasizes their common beauty and location; but in the Linnaen system 
of classification by genus and species they would not be listed together. 
Similarly, Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny's less rigid 
classification, based on visual impressions, places the twinflower directly 
after the partridgeberry in the section devoted to pink or red creeping or 
matted evergreen plants (1968, 236), while the Peterson Field Guide to 
Medicinal Plants and Herbs (Foster and Duke 2000) notes a practical 
connection between the two plants that develops the aesthetic similarities 
noted by Traill and by Peterson and McKenny. The practical connection 
originates in Aboriginal communities, where the plant tea of both the 
partridgeberry and the twinflower was used for irregular and difficult 
menstruation as well as for pain in pregnancy and childbirth (Foster and 
Duke 2000, 31, 173). The contemporary reader, using the information gleaned 
from the indicator species within both the earth and the text, responds 
with the knowledge that concentrating on a looser classification than the 
Linnaen system, one based on practical applications, is perhaps the more 
relevant approach in the woods of Ontario. An openness to a less rigid and 
technical classification makes sense coming from a writer who prefers "the 
lovely Wild Flowers," the "natives of the soil" to "the flowers of the 
greenhouse and parterre" (Traill 1996, 75) and who regrets the replacement 
of herbal treatment with scientific medicine.14

In this discussion, Traill also compares the Sweet Cicely of Canada 
(Osmorhiza longistylis or daytont)15 with English parsley: "The shining 
parsley-like leaves of the Sweet Cicely are there too, looking so fresh and 
tempting that you wish it were, what it greatly resembles, English parsley" 
(1874, 249). Although nostalgically yearning for English "tastes," on 
almost every occasion Traill is inquisitive about the practical properties 
and potential of plants in Canada. She admires the female herbalist of 
times gone by, who was "skilled in the knowledge of their [flowers'] 
medicinal qualities" (Traill 1843, 229), and Traill includes medicinal 
applications in many of her descriptions. She tells us, for example, that 
the root of the Indian turnip is used as a "medicine" and an "esculent" 
(Traill 1836, 174), while a "decoction" from the root of the Pitcher Plant 
"has been said to lessen all the more violent symptoms" (Traill 1868, 75) 
of smallpox. Although Traill does not pursue the medicinal qualities of 
Sweet Cicely here, she would not be surprised to learn of them. She would 
find her openness to all aspects and applications of plants in the Canadian 
landscape confirmed and rewarded by the knowledge of the use of Sweet 
Cicely as a poultice on wounds and boils (Foster and Duke 2000, 72). Sweet 
Cicely performs a more practical task than that of English parsley used as 
a culinary garnish. The practical applications demanded by the Canadian 
environment emerge from both the earth and the text, pushing more aesthetic 
concerns back to England. A new Canadian aesthetic, as opposed to a British 
one, appears to be evolving, "rooted" in the necessity of adopting a 
practical approach to the plant life found in this country. In a sense, the 
English parsley and Canadian Sweet Cicely are engaging in a competition of 
species within the text; natural selection could have profound implications 
for these two plants. If one of these two species gains an advantage in the 
text, it increases its fitness (to use evolutionary terms) in both the 
literary and ecological sense. In the Preface to Canadian Wild Flowers and 
elsewhere, Traill comments on the work of Pursh, "the only botanical work I 
have at my command" (1836, 168), noting the long-term impact of the 
botanist's choices and descriptions.16 Unlike Traill, Pursh sees the "New 
Continent" as a storehouse for Europe: "Her forests produce an endless 
variety of useful and stately timber trees.... All these are more or less 
capable of being adapted to a European climate" (Pursh 1814, v). Despite 
their differences, Traill's references to Pursh emphasize her awareness of 
her own role in the promotion of individual plants and approaches. She opts 
for practicality and convenience over rigid systems, a position dictated to 
some extent by the plants themselves and certainly determined by the 
ecosystem in which she finds herself. Traill's comments about Pursh, which 
include both appreciation and frustration, reveal her awareness of the 
power she wields and the responsibility she holds as a naturalist in a new 

Although Traill seems supremely satisfied with the perfection of the 
ecological interchange that uses, shares, and wastes not, she is honest and 
inclusive, and so takes into account the effects of human intrusion and 
interference. She understandably divests the settler of choice if he is to 
survive, maintaining that "coming to make himself a home, he must cut down 
and clear the living trees and clear the ground with axe and fire" [italics 
ours] (1894, 241), and she reminds readers that the land has been made 
fertile by God and nature rather than through any human effort. It is at 
the end of "A Glance Within the Forest," however, that Traill sees the 
"continual destruction of the native trees" as "a source of regret, even 
while acknowledging its necessity, for with the removal of the sheltering 
woods must also disappear most of the rare plants, indigenous to the soil, 
that derive their nurture from them, some indeed so entirely dependent on 
the decaying vegetation of the trees beneath which they grow that they 
perish directly they are deprived of it" (1874, 250). Traill recognizes 
that her own pioneer activity instigates this transformation and thus 
contributes to the desired but regrettable clearing of the land, wiping out 
many species. She continues to repress emerging feelings of regret and 
guilt for the changed environment, while stressing how important it is that 
the new generation, the next growth that will eventually take over, view 
plants and flowers in ways that lead beyond the specimen itself to a level 
that will "refine and purify the mind" (1836, 184)." In order to counteract 
personal feelings of regret and guilt, Traill constructs plants as part of 
a moral universe, capable of serving far more than simply aesthetic and 
practical needs.

She only arrives at this moral universe, however, after repeatedly 
attempting to identify herself with the native plant life in Ontario rather 
than with the force that wipes out the old growth in order to prepare for 
the new. This eagerness to ally herself with Canadian flora is an attempt 
to root herself in the soil of her new country, but the simplicity of the 
positioning is much too nave, as she realizes. As an immigrant, she seems 
to know that the adjustment to the new place is much more complicated than 
a simple and sudden transplanting in the new soil. In her preface to 
Studies of Plant Life in Canada, Traill refers to "a common little weed 
known by the familiar name of Carpetweed" (1885, ii). She describes this 
plant as "a small Polygonum, that grows at our doors" and displays 
"persevering habits" and "wiry roots" (ii). Carpetweed, when "crushed by 
the foot and bruised," manages to "spring again as if unharmed" and 
"flourishes under all circumstances, however adverse" (ii). Serving as a 
straightforward metaphorical example of resilience and inspiration, the 
carpetweed gives Traill courage "when trials press[ed] hard upon her" (ii). 
Enriching the obvious and consciously used symbolism, however, is our 
knowledge that the carpetweed family (Aizoaceae) is believed by many to 
have originated in the tropics, specifically South America, and is thus an 
introduced species in Canada; like Traill, it makes its home on newly 
seeded sites or disturbed soil rather than on established turf.18 According 
to Eileen Woodhead, the author of Early Canadian Gardening: An 1827 Nursery 
Catalogue, members of the carpetweed family "grew close to the ground out 
of the wind and had shapes with the least surface possible, to avoid losing 
moisture" (1998, 197). Slow germination, a strong taproot, and the rapid 
spread of the plant along the surface of the earth in the hot summer 
weather explain the resilience of the carpetweed, protected as well by 
succulent leaves and the cuticle. Traill, by choosing this introduced 
species as a metaphor and example, has chosen a plant that not only 
inspires her but also seems to reflect her own evolution and 
adaptation-perhaps in more ways than she intends. This information adds 
layers to Traill's deliberate symbolism and invites speculation about 
whether she is aware of the carpetweed as a "colonizer." One possibility is 
that she becomes aware of its origins in the period of time between viewing 
the plant and writing about it, but does not overtly include the later 
information because it would disrupt the truth of the original viewing. 
Perhaps Traill has inklings of the appropriateness of her choice of 
symbolic plant, but does not have the definitive knowledge that would allow 
her the confidence to reveal its position as "colonizer." Or she may even 
repress the question of the plant's origins as she tries to simplify the 
complications attached to her own immigration and adaptation. Whatever the 
case, the carpetweed provides an excellent example of the way in 
whichplants, deliberately used by Traill as symbols, take on an added 
significance, reflecting or duplicating her own situation-in this case that 
of the immigrant and colonizer.

Such speculation about the degree to which Traill is aware of the parallels 
between herself and the plant is inevitable in these cases where the 
references to plants carry weighty symbolic relevance beyond the author's 
intention. In this particular case we find another reference that indeed 
suggests that Traill was probably aware of carpetweed's reputation as an 
introduced species. In her later discussion of purslane (Portulaca 
oleracea), a plant from a family closely connected to the carpetweed family 
and sharing similar characteristics with the carpetweed described 
earlier,19 Traill notes that the original is "from South America; whence it 
was introduced some years ago" (1885, 89). Her acknowledgement of purslane 
as an introduced species suggests that the similar carpetweed was also 
viewed by her as an "alien" species introduced to the area. The reluctance 
to record the carpetweed of the preface as an alien species perhaps arises 
from Traill's resistance to allying herself with the status of "alien" in a 
place she wants to establish as "home." Although this second reference 
strengthens our sense that Traill is identifying with the unstated 
immigrant nature of the carpetweed, we contend that the analogy exists 
whether or not the writer is fully aware of the implications. The "organic" 
text depends for its interpretation on a partnership with a reader who 
brings information that can have an impact on the text, causing it to 
evolve and change as that information and insight are applied.

The plants in the text, like the real plants, can be seen as organic 
elements within a larger ecosystem; they must take into account all sorts 
of relationships and interdependencies, and thus are both the subject of 
and contributors to a literary evolution comparable to an ecological 
evolution. The literary metaphor depends on the reader's relationship to 
the author and the text; and the reader, as a dynamic element in the 
partnerships, will work to bring about changes and new strains in the 
literary landscapes or ecosystems. Although sometimes appearing to be 
rooted by accident and chance, plants are more often deliberately planted 
in the earth (by natural and/or human design) for both practical and 
aesthetic purposes. Similarly, references to plants are often strategically 
inserted in literary texts in order to perform practical and aesthetic 
functions comparable to those provided by the physical plant itself.

Like the plant placed in the earth, however, the plant rooted in the 
literary text tends to take on an organic and dynamic life of its own.20 
The textual plant, like the real plant, is anything but static. Assumptions 
about the plant's position and function in the ecosystem of the environment 
as well as within the "ecosystem" of the text should be examined in a 
critical manner. The activity taking place in an ecosystem, "a unit of 
nature in which non-living substances and living organisms interact with a 
change of materials taking place between the nonliving and living parts" 
(Rowe 1990, 118), is obviously applicable to the act of reading, which 
arguably involves a similar interaction between living organisms and non- 
living substances. The combination of writer, reader, and text produces 
dynamic interchanges between the "living" human presences and the 
"non-living" words on the page, resulting in an evolution of 
interpretations and meanings.

"A Ladder to Heaven"

Traill's passion for plants raises the question of the extent to which this 
love acts as a shaping force in her views of other dimensions of her life, 
particularly those concerned with morality. Identifying with the resilient 
carpetweed inspires Traill with moral fortitude, but more commonly, she 
sees plants and ecosystems as signs of a divine plan rather than simply 
reflections of a personal situation and temperament. For example, when 
Traill's writing in Canadian Wild Flowers develops from botanical 
description to philosophical speculation, the flowers quite easily provide 
a convenient and apt proof of an ordered Christian world. This view is 
obviously bolstered by Traill's own "construction" of the plants through 
her responses to them and her descriptions of them. The botanical 
descriptions, stamped by Traill's personality, broach the boundaries 
associated with her position as a traditional Victorian, Christian woman, 
ostensibly placing her within the boundaries, but at the same time boldly 
stretching and testing the flexibility of these conventions and limits.

Traill's moral perspective is explicit on a number of occasions, but 
perhaps never more tellingly than in the Canadian Wild Flowers entry for 
the Indian Turnip (Arum triphyllum), more commonly referred to as 
"Jack-in-the-Pulpit." In addition to recording the botanical properties of 
the plant, Traill describes the uses of the plant, primarily of the root, 
which has a poisonous quality, but which, when properly prepared, was used 
by Aboriginal communities as a cure for "violent colic." She also notes 
that the processed root is sold as a "pleasant and valuable article of 
food" (1868, 12) under the name Portland Sage or Portland Arrow-root. It is 
the dual nature of this plant as tonic and food that inspires her 
philosophical observance:

There seems to be in the vegetable world, as well as in the moral, two 
opposite principles, the good and the evil. The gracious God has given to 
man the power, by the cultivation of his intellect, to elicit the good and 
useful, separating it from the vile and injurious, thus turning that into a 
blessing which would otherwise be a curse. (Traill 1868, 11)

To add to the complexity, Traill recalls how several children were 
"poisoned by the leaves of the Arum triphyllum being gathered and eaten as 
greens in one of the early settled back townships of Western Canada" (1868, 
11), and records a repetition of this "deplorable accident" when "ignorant 
persons" ate the leaves of the "Mandrake or Mayapple (Podophyllin pedatum)" 
(1868, 11). She concludes by describing how the cassava plant (Zanipha 
manipar) of the West Indies is "another remarkable instance of art 
overcoming nature, and obtaining a positive good from that which in its 
natural state is evil" (1868, 11).

For Traill, then, it appears that the natural world around her is Edenic, 
but not merely as it manifests the creative powers of a Christian God. It 
contains also the peril of sin. According to Traill, the garden has the 
potential to be a paradise or a poisoned environment just as humans have 
the potential to be pure or sinful, blessed or cursed. The two opposite 
principles of good and evil are at work in both the botanical and the human 
realm, resulting in the parallels that Traill so often draws between the 
two. Traill argues that these opposing forces must be discovered and heeded 
in plants, "thus turning that into a blessing which would otherwise be a 
curse" (1868, 11). It is not simply a matter of passively noting the 
presence of good and evil in the world; it is necessary to participate 
actively in the apprehension of the good and evil by examining and using 
the world in a way that separates and raises the good. The initial comments 
about the plants as a reflection of God's goodness and order are challenged 
by these insights into a world in which disorder and evil potentially 
threaten the divine plan. Traill draws attention to the contradiction 
instead of glossing over it. Without human intention, knowledge, and 
application, the inherent good can be overpowered by the bad since both 
exist. God's divine plan places the onus on human thought and action to 
apprehend the world in a way that "extracts" the good.

Perhaps it is the discovery of this religious and moral rationale that 
enables Traill to straddle the antagonistic worlds of botanist and pioneer, 
justifying to some extent the development and cultivation as a way to 
discover and redeem the evil and sin that were present even in the most 
ideal garden of Eden. Her defensive protestations, however, are not 
entirely convincing. This balancing of ecologist and settler is apparent in 
much of her writing, as Peterman and Ballstadt note in their introduction 
to Forest and Other Gleanings: The Fugitive Writings of Catharine Pan Traill:

As a British pioneer and colonist she was of necessity committed to the 
project of colonial development; however, as a naturalist and a believer in 
an ordered but inscrutable universe, she wished above all else to celebrate 
and preserve the fragile and precious elements of the natural world she 
encountered in Upper Canada. (1994, 12-1 3)

As a botanist she loves the natural world and often repeats her lament that 
"a time will come when these rare productions of our soil will disappear 
from among us" (Traill 1868, 61). She foresees that these native plants are 
"destined sooner or later to be swept away, as the onward march of 
civilization clears away the primeval forest" (8) and that "the cultivation 
of the tracts of forest land and prairie destroys the native trees, ... 
plants, ... flowers, shrubs and ferns" (1885, ii). At the same time, she 
regards the process of civilization as inevitable and as promising a return 
to a more ideal relationship with God, as man "reclaims the swamps and bogs 
and turns the waste places into a fruitful field" (1868, 8). The dynamic of 
this tension within Traill's writings suggests an inner conflict that, 
while "managed," is never wholly resolved. The "use" of plants and flowers 
as rungs on "a ladder to heaven" (Traill 1836, 184) or as ways to reclaim 
spiritual fruitfulness does not invest the plant itself with enough 
importance or value to satisfy Traill, despite her attempts to convince 
herself. The blatant human "use" of plants for botanical, literary, or 
religious purposes fails to acknowledge or \respect their power and 
vitality. Such "use" also separates the user from the ecosystem in which 
she and the plant live.

In one example of this separation, Traill draws attention to the 
pitcher-plant or "soldier's drinking cup" (1836, 182) as a strange 
specimen. It contains "a full wine-glass of water" (182) and is thus a 
plant capable of offering refreshment to those who come across it. She 
provides the story of the emigrant pensioner, who compares the Canadian 
pitcher plant with the Egyptian Soldier's Drinking Cup, viewing both as 

... he always thought that God in his goodness had created the plant to 
give drink to such as were athirst on a hot and toilsome march and so he 
looked with gratitude and admiration on its representative in Canada. 
(Traill 1868, 74)

Planting this reference in the text, Traill translates the symbolism from 
the earth to the page, offering her readers an image that has grown from 
the botanical to the moral, as she admonishes that "Many a lesson may we 
learn from the lips of the poor and lowly" (74). The plant's role in this 
interchange is not lost on Traill, who comments that it is "remarkable in 
its appearance" (65), playing its own major part in attracting our 
attention. The pitcher plant attracts insects through the reddish colour 
and musty smell of its leaves. The plant traps the insect in the leaf 
tubes, which have hairs that point downward, preventing the insects from 
escaping. Ironically, our "drinking cup" becomes the insect's drowning 
pool, and eventually the plant digests the decomposed insect. Traill 
follows the reference to the pitcher plant in The Backwoods of Canada with 
a description of her own strong attraction to the aromas of certain plants, 
particularly wild roses. The positioning of these two episodes outlining 
the power of the plant's ability to attract life calls into question our 
assumptions about our role and position in our relationships with plants. 
We are attracted to plants and flowers, but we assume that we, unlike the 
insect trapped in the pitcher plant, use and control them for our own 
purposes. Is it possible that plants could be, through their methods of 
attraction, controlling us to a certain extent?

Michael Pollen, in The Botany of Desire, suggests just that. Using examples 
from American landscape and culture, he convincingly argues that "our 
grammar might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive 
objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an 
object, every object a subject" (2001, xxi). He proposes that agriculture 
could be defined as "something the grasses did to the people in order to 
conquer trees" (xxi) and suggests that domestication is perhaps not 
"something we do to other species," but is "something certain plants and 
animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their 
own interests" (xvi). It is not too far-fetched to speculate that the 
plants attracting Traill are using her as a means to advance the 
evolutionary drive of individual species, ensuring their botanical and 
cultural survival and evolution when much of the wilderness is transformed 
into a garden and when the Canadian experience is "translated" into 
literature. The symbiotic relationship between the wilderness and the 
writer ensures the evolution of an interdependency between horticulture and 
culture.21 To take Pollen's thesis into literature, we could ask if 
evolutionary forces, such as natural selection, adaptation, mutation, and 
hybridization, are strategies of nature used to attract, motivate, and 
shape the human choices of symbols, motifs, and tropes that inform our 
literature and culture, and thus record or promote certain plants through 
those records. The idea that humans use plants as rungs on a ladder to 
heaven should be tempered by an acknowledgement of the possibility that 
plants, in their drive to survive, may use humans.

Traill's metaphorical references to plants and flowers reveal the internal 
conflicts that result from her attempt to situate herself as a female 
naturalist in Ontario. The polarities include botany and literature, 
science and art, progress and conservation, modern medicine and herbal 
treatment, Christianity and feminism, and pragmatism and aestheticism. When 
her attempts to reconcile her ambivalence are abandoned, surprising 
insights are offered through deeply felt impulses and admissions: she 
acknowledges, for example, that "As much of the botany of these unsettled 
portions of the country are unknown to the naturalist, and the plants are 
quite nameless, I take the liberty of bestowing names upon them according 
to inclination and fancy" (1836, 102). She continues to draw attention to 
this unscientific practice, promoting herself as the one bestowing names 
and identities:

I suppose our scientific botanists in Britain would consider me very 
impertinent in bestowing names on the flowers and plants I meet with in 
these wild woods; I can only say I am glad to discover the Canadian or even 
the Indian names if I can, and where they fail I consider myself free to 
become their floral godmother, and give them names of my own choosing. 
(Traill 1836, 120)

An impertinent godmother taking liberty, Traill simply abandons the Linnean 
system, and even aesthetic classification and herbal applications, in her 
delight in the complete freedom from established systems and conventions. 
"Our scientific botanists in Britain" are as distantly removed from this 
new-world floral godmother as they can be. The godmother is responsible for 
the baptizing and naming of these flowers and for their upbringing in a 
natural world. Rather than feeling limited by or submitting to the 
hierarchies of science and religion, Traill simply climbs the rungs of the 
ladder itself, moving beyond and above the constraints of the patriarchal 

Of course any individual in Traill's position would face the challenge of 
fitting into a new landscape and a new life.
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