Russell Smith writes in Ottawa when he isn't paddling or skiing
into some Canadian wilderness. His poetry, stories, feature articles
and reviews have appeared in periodicals across Canada, the USA,
and the UK. His published books include Trippers' Tales: Stories
and Legends from the Ottawa Valley (GSPH 1991), The Felicity
Papers: Forgotten Voices of a Valley Town (GSPH 1995) and Why
We Stand Facing South (poetry; Moonstone Press, 1998). A second
poetry collection and a historical-juvenile novel are forthcoming.
Find his work at www.ncf.ca/~ab297/
The Birds of Haggart's Ditch
threnody by E. Russell Smith ©
A pair of orioles sing
around their hanging bower;
an osprey whistles to
his consort on her tower.
heard by teams
of wondering Irishmen
who dug too shallow for
the draft of steamboats.
Yet for all their pains
died. The early Tay canal,
a tag on Colonel By's original,
brought timbers briefly
from the mills at Perth,
and then it failed as well.
a lazy paddle brings us
through this legendary mire
from lower locks to duelling-fields
and luncheon at a coffee house
not there in eighteen thirty-four.
snakes and painted turtles
sun on mossy logs, and spy us passing,
alone at first with nature and the past,
where muskrats vee the glassy water
by shores of reeds and speckled alder.
turkey vultures also watch.
Flycatchers sweep malarial mosquitoes
from the autumn air. Herons stalk
and stab for minnows in the shallows.
gentian, bittersweet, and grape,
hyssop, alien thorn, and loosestrife
dress the banks where we have found,
above the rough-cut masonry,
abandoned shards of old clay pipes.
in blinds are watching decoys.
One old gander crosses overhead;
the hunters fail to call it in.
In dying light beneath a formidable sky
the bird drops down into a cove
boys with shotguns
passing in an outboard, stop
to shoot the sitting fowl.
It rises for a short last flight,
falters and collapses in the reeds.
have no dog to fetch it,
and they give up trying to retrieve
the wounded creature, left to die and lie,
like those abandoned Irish navvies
in an unmarked resting place.
nest beneath a bridge;
redwings cry; a pied-billed grebe
forages near the upstream end.
Kingfishers rattle on of happier days.
Tay Canal, known as "Haggart's Ditch" after John G. Haggart, local
MP, Minister of Railways and Canals who spent much money upgrading
it, is part of the Rideau System. The present locks were built in
1883-1887, replacing earlier wooden locks of 1834. About 500 Irish
labourers died building the Rideau Canal.