“Six inches of rain a year is just about perfect. You can grow a crop on three inches, if it comes at the right time, but six inches is what you want.”
– H. Crone, June 22, 2014
To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee.
– Emily Dickinson
Badlands sky. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
I wrote the first post of this blog on the Winter Solstice, the longest night. Yesterday was the longest day, the summer solstice. Throughout time, humans have marked the solstices and the equinoxes with special rites. They have built monuments precisely aligned with the rising or setting solstice suns. They have gathered in places that are sacred to watch the first or the last rays of the sun on these tipping points in the year.
The summer solstice is a culmination. Though the fullness of summer is still a few weeks away, the solstice marks the time of year when everything reaches toward the sun – every growing thing, every living thing. It is a bittersweet day, for it means that tomorrow the sun’s light recedes from us a bit every day, imperceptibly at first, until darkness comes earlier and we begin to approach the autumnal equinox, when everything has borne fruit and must dig in for winter.
When you live in a rural place where you can see the sun and how it moves throughout the year, this cyclical routine of the sun seeps into your bones, just as the lunar cycle does. We don’t even notice it, usually, because it’s so much a part of us.
A sacred place in southern Saskatchewan is the Big Muddy Badlands, also known as the Big Muddy Valley, or more simply, just the Big Muddy. This is a place of spectacular beauty, of exhilarating history. The Big Muddy was the Wild West. Outlaws, cattle rustling, horse thieving, rum running, it all happened there. Sitting Bull rode through it. Countless horses and cattle have grazed its grasses. Before all of this, the aboriginal peoples considered it a holy place, judging by the amount of effigies found there. Thousands of tipi rings stand in silent testimony of lives lived there for thousands of years.
The Big Muddy will be referred to again and again in this blog, I’m sure. It is a place of mystery and magic and legends and lore. It is one of my favourite places on earth, perhaps second only to the Gap country, its nearest neighbour to the east.
I travelled with good friends to the Big Muddy the evening of the solstice to watch the sun set at its late hour. No monuments are needed to mark the sacred solstice in the Big Muddy. The landscape itself is the most perfect venue imaginable for such a rite. The Big Muddy is a place of light and shadow, of constant contrasts. It is the only place I wanted to be to watch the sun set on the Longest Day.
Badland buttes. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Grass, Sky, Song. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Clouds over a coulee. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
By the shores of Big Muddy Lake. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Badlands flora. Kristin Catherwood. June 21. 2014.
Solstice shadows. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Big Muddy Lake. Krisitn Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Hole in the Wall. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
The last light of the sun. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
“The sensually descriptive folk names which people attach to the flora, fauna, and topographical features of a place provide a similar view of the local knowledge and interpretation of the physical components of that place, as do a few types of place-based narrative – like local legends and tall tales – which rely for much of their meaning on the nature of their physical setting. Such lore goes beyond cartographic symbols to get its hands dirty among the things that the symbols represent”
– Kent C. Ryden, Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place*
By Shawn Catherwood
Stink Lake is what we call it. I’m sure there is a proper name for this elegant body of water. Whatever that name is, it is not of importance to me. The name we gave it is all too perfect. This so called lake has quite the distinct smell that one would not pass by without commenting on that foreign stench traveling through their nostrils. Don’t be thrown off, this lake is as beautiful as it gets this close to home.
Just a meagre three miles from the place I call home, I turn my steering wheel and smoothly slide along the gravel as I turn onto the goat trail that will take me to the majestic Stink Lake. The koisha weeds scrape the bottom of the vehicle like sand paper. I try not to focus my attention to the chilling century old house alongside the trail, as the glassless windows seem to be watching me trespass into this pocket of the world.
I trek a few hundred yards down to the sand where I have arrived just in time for the mysterious ball of fire in the sky to recede below the horizon. I sit there in silence, taking everything in. The rolling hills of the gap in which a glacier passed through millions of years ago are in the background, the golden stubble of a recent wheat field in front. The stench of the lake hangs in the air like fog. I’m not fazed by it because the glare of the sunset on the lake eliminates my other four senses. Motionless, I sit as I take in this beauty. It is now dusk and if I want to escape this foreign corner of the province I need to leave right now before it is too dark. Today there is no full moon to guide me, I’ll be trapped. So I leave, “til’ next time Stink lake”.
Nothing compares to the beauty of this body of water crevassed between fields and hills. It’s a place of complete stillness, it is surreal. To release all emotions and feel nothing but relief and happiness. Stink Lake is as real of a place as there is. A place I can call mine.
There’s nothing I can add to that beautiful piece of writing to describe Stink Lake. It’s beautiful not only because my usually taciturn, practical little brother wrote it – someone who does not enjoy writing or consider himself talented at it (though I would beg to differ), but also it is beautiful because of how strongly centred in place it is. Shawn wrote this for a Grade Twelve English assignment last fall that required students to write about one of their favourite places. We folklorists talk a lot about space and place because we’ve figured out that place is absolutely essential to a community’s sense of identity, as well as to individuals’ sense of who they are. Often we go through our lives without really thinking about what the place we live in means. We absorb it into us, so that it becomes part of us, but we don’t often talk about it except in practical terms.
Stink Lake, as my brother wrote, is just three miles from our farm. It has always held a special place in my imagination. It’s an alkaline lake – hence the stink. There are times, in dry years, when it is empty of water. The last few years have been wet, so it’s full, and it truly is an impressively large body of water in this dry region. During the fall migration, it becomes a centre of bird activity. The cacophony of all the geese, cranes, and other migrators travels over its waters and right into our farm yard. I can hear it at night when I’m falling asleep. During the spring and summer, a squadron of pelicans can usually be found on the lake’s island, which we call Pelican Island, of course.
When I was about eleven, I wrote a dramatic murder mystery story in which the unfortunate victim’s corpse was dumped in Stink Lake. My relatively rare excursions to the shores of Stink Lake are exciting because there are always interesting birds and animals to see, and as my brother captured so well in his essay, there’s just something about the place that stimulates the imagination. It’s not very easy to get to. The stink is not all that strong these days, since the water is so high. In low water years, it smells sulfurous, rotten eggy. I found out recently that the body of water is properly named Cockburn Lake, probably after an early homesteader or a surveyor. But that name evokes nothing. This body of water is known simply as Stink Lake by everyone in the area because, as my brother wrote, “it is as real of a place as there is.”
Stink Lake. Photo: September 14, 2013. Kristin Catherwood.
*Kent C. Ryden. 1993. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 63.
ha·rangue [huh–rang] noun. 1. a scolding or a long or intense verbal attack; diatribe. 2.a long, passionate, and vehement speech, especially one delivered before a public gathering. 3.any long, pompous speech or writing of a tediously hortatory or didactic nature; sermonizing lecture or discourse.
If you want to get my blood boiling, say something like, “Saskatchewan is boring and flat” in my presence. Today a visitor to the museum where I work said, in response to my question about his ride on the Southern Prairie Railway, “It was all right. There’s not much for scenery in Saskatchewan.” If I bit my tongue every time I heard a phrase like that, I’d be tongueless.
What I wanted to say to the gentleman was, “First of all, sir, please take of your sunglasses; you’re inside now. Also I want you to look me square in the eye when you utter such a flagrantry disrespectul and ignorant remark. Secondly, you’re completely wrong, and here’s why.”
But I didn’t want to get fired. So instead, I said calmly, “Wow, you must not get out much if that’s what you think.” He laughed until he realised I wasn’t kidding, then said, “I guess you have to learn how to see the beauty here.” It’s a fair point, I suppose. To the uninitiated, Saskatchewan might seem a little less exotic than say, the Rocky Mountains. My step grandmother, who came from England, told me that it took her awhile to see the beauty of the prairies, but now she can’t imagine living anywhere else. A lot of people’s experiences of Saskatchewan are limited to cruising along the abysmal Trans Canada highway which cuts jaggedly (though sensibly) across the flattest part of the province. Those who have ever landed at Regina’s airport can attest to the absolute flatness of the Regina Plains, which might seem “boring” or “ugly” if your aesthetic sensibilities require a beauty that shouts loudly in your face, mountain style, rather than murmuring softly, prairie style.
Nothing to see here, folks. Please move along to a place where the grass is greener. June 7, 2014. Kristin Catherwood.
It turns out this man actually grew up in southwestern Saskatchewan, one of the most beautiful regions of the province, in my opinion, but has since located to the more standardly accepted picturesqueness of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. I’d be the last person to deny the awesome beauty of BC’s mountainous landscape. However, I still don’t think it compares to the prairie. And to know that he had grown up on the prairie and never learned to love its beauty before jumping ship eliminated any slack I would have cut him.
I was so riled up by this encounter (though I should be used to them by now), that I mentioned it to my boss. She grimaced and said, “you know, we used to be called “the gap” – the space between Manitoba and Alberta.” I’ve heard similar comments, but never the exact terminology of Saskatchewan being known as the “gap” province. Hm, another reason why this blog is called From the Gap, perhaps? We in Saskatchewan of course have our own ideas about our position in relation to our neighbouring provinces. A popular phrase is: “Alberta Blows, Manitoba Sucks,” ostensibly in reference to the prevailing winds, but obviously a dig at the (perceived) shortcomings of our prairie sibling provinces.
There is that old phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Perhaps instead of vigorously arguing why my province is so spectacular, I should just smile in sympathy at people who utter ignorant statements about Saskatchewan’s apparent lack of aesthetic qualities. After all, it must be a pitiable existence to have so little poetry in the soul that one is oblivious to the beauty of the prairie. I should let such people go merrily on their way, content that I know a secret they do not. Their definition of “gap” is different from mine – all the more tragedy for them.
These Canadian geese understand the value of a gap. May 25, 2014. Kristin Catherwood.
June 7, 2014.
June 7, 2014.
June 7, 2014.