More than land

AMHERST – Canada can be thought of as cold, beautiful and remote, its people reserved, humble and tolerant.

Bigger and emptier than the United States, it has 40 percent more land mass and only one percent of our population.

Both countries were settled by roughly similar European groups, yet their national identities are very different.

In a two-part afternoon slide show at the Amherst Town Library called “The Idea of North,” Nancy Baker explored the art, music, literature and folklore of Canada and the ways the country’s deep northern forests shaped Canadians’ sense of self.

North is a subjective term, a goal, not a place, she said, starting with Greek myths and the geographic and environmental meanings of north, and ending with Canadian theosophy and its impact on art.

The program touched on Arctic explorers, but was more about “north” as a philosophical and spiritual concept, and illustrated with a slide show of modern Canadian art, including the paintings of the Group of Seven, early 20th century artists who focused on the beauty and mystery of the natural landscape.

European artists at the time considered the Canadian landscape too harsh to be a suitable subject for painters, its pine trees “unpaintable.”

In developing their distinctive style, the defiant Group of Seven adopted the jack pine, the most common and least beautiful of the Canadian pines, as their symbol.

Baker also integrated literature into the program, with the Margaret Atwood short story, “Death by Landscape.”

In the story, a Canadian named Lois remembers a disastrous summer camp experience when she came to see the wilderness as a sinister force.

After the death of her husband, Lois has moved about as far from the wilderness as she can get, a new condominium apartment high above Lake Ontario, where “she is relieved not to have to worry about the lawn, or about the ivy pushing its muscular little suckers into the brickwork.”

For her, the Canadian wilderness is uneasily contained in the Group of Seven paintings acquired over the years that cover a wall in her condo.

Baker also brings in composer Glenn Gould, whose parents had a summer house on a lake north of Toronto, saw the wilderness differently.

In the introduction to his documentary, “The Idea of North,” Gould admits to being fascinated by the northern parts of his country, but “the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid.”

Baker taught classical languages, philosophy and the history of ideas at Souhegan High School for many years and is now executive chairwoman of the Guild of Volunteers at the Currier Museum of Art and also serves on its Advisory Council. She is chairwoman of the Amherst Library Board of Trustees.

The Idea of North was part of the library’s “Enter Winter” series for adults.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at

673-3100 or