“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.