Prairie Pilgrimage: I

“I began to realize how life for all of us in the West is shaped by Nature in ways we don’t even realize, much less notice consciously.”

– Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning

I had never read anything that had captured the way I felt about the prairie until I read The Perfection of the Morning four years ago. When I read it, I thought, finally, someone who understands.

September 26, 2014.
September 26, 2014.

Sharon Butala had known and captured certain truths of life on the prairie before I was born. But until I was a grown adult and read her work, I had never been able to articulate myself what the prairie meant to me. It’s no exaggeration to say that this blog, and much of what I focus my attention on both personally and academically, would not have come into being without her influence.

I met her briefly a couple years ago. I was so nervous I could barely speak (usually not a problem I have). But it was a moment I won’t ever forget, to meet someone of such wisdom, someone who knew and understood the soul of prairie, and not only that, but could express it.

As soon as I read The Perfection of the Morning, I wanted to visit Old Man on His Back (OMB), a prairie conservation area maintained by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Sharon and her late husband Peter had donated several thousand acres of pristine prairie grassland to the NCC years agoIt`s a remote place, four hours drive from my farm, in the extreme south and west of Saskatchewan. My friend had invited me to spend the weekend at Cypress Hills on the last weekend of Septemeber. I decided to take a circuitous, non-direct route that would allow me to see bits of Saskatchewan I’d never seen before, including OMB.

I arrived in the late afternoon, just as the sun was slanting its last rays across the prairie grass. I had called ahead and the interpreter, a woman who emigrated from England in the 1960s and has called this remote place home ever since, was kind enough to stay late for me.

I only had a short time to spend there, but I still remember vividly the quiet, the stillness, and the goldenness of that late September evening. Once I left, driving west on the grid road, dust behind me as I travelled onwards toward the Cypress Hills, purple in the distance, I knew very well I would come back to this sacred place. There was something magical about the drive to Cypress Hills that evening, through land I had never seen before.  Perhaps because I have read so much of Butala’s work,  I felt as if I knew it already deep in my bones.

The Festival of Light

February 2nd is not just any day. It’s Groundhog Day, of course. North Americans awake eagerly to see what our rodent friends Wiarton Willy and Punxsutawney Phil, and I think a few others, have prognosticated for the end of winter. It’s all a bit cheesy and weird, honestly. Is it not?

A great prophet? Harbinger of spring?
A great prophet? Harbinger of spring? Image credit:

But actually, Groundhog Day is built upon an older tradition, the Christian festival of Candlemas, which marks the 40th day after Christ’s birth and the ritual presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem. Starting in the Middle Ages, the day became the one where all the candles in the church were blessed – hence the name.

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Candles are light, but they are also symbolic of light. And it’s no coincidence that Candlemas happened to follow at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox – a time when we begin to really notice that our days are filled with more light. With the longer days, we begin to think of spring. Though here in Saskatchewan we are still in the bitter depths of winter, the earlier sunrise and later sunset remind us that spring will come.

And so Candlemas, the day of light, was also a day for predicting the weather to come. A traditional proverb:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright                                                 Winter will have another fight                                                                     If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain                                     Winter won’t come again.

A few other bits of lore:

For some people, different superstitions surround this festival. For instance, if a candle drips on one side when carried in church on Candlemas, this denotes a death of a family member during the year.

If someone brings snowdrops into the house on Candlemas day it symbolises a parting or death.

Any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 5th) should be left up until Candlemas Day and then taken down.

But Candlemas is based on an even older tradition. The pre-Christian Gaelic peoples called it Imbolc, which may be derived from the Gaelic words “in the belly” which pertained to pregnant ewes – a sign of the coming spring. It was a day of feasting, of laying out gifts and items for blessing by the goddess Brigid (later, incidentally, known as St. Bridgid in the Christian tradition). They would light candles and bonfires, too.

So Groundhog Day, broadcast on TV with much fanfare, is a bit kitschy and corny. But it has its roots in some old, old knowledge of the seasons and the cycles of light.

Image credit:
Image credit:

An Iron Country

“It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.”

– Willa Cather, O Pioneers, 139.

January, month of Janus, who had two faces, one which looked backward and one which looked forward. He was a caretaker, a guardian of doorways. January, the month that gets rid of the old year and brings in the new. Also, the month where winter truly settles in and, as dear Willa Cather wrote so beautifully, “the spirit is oppressed.” At least, it seems that way.

In Saskatchewan, winter is a trial. An endurance test. Whiteout blizzards, 40 below, winds that slash your face and frost that will bite your skin. It’s all true, sometimes. This January has been strange. For two weeks, temperatures were above 0 degrees. El Niño or climate change or just irregularity, I’m not sure. It was strange though. Especially when one simply expects January to be difficult.

Winter is a struggle for me, as it is for so many. But in Saskatchewan, it’s so much a part of who we are. In the past, winter defined life all year round. The other three seasons were spent in preparation to survive it. Even now with our furnaces and cars and well-stocked grocery stores and trips to hot destinations, winter defines us. It is so long, so dark, so drab, so dry.

Creativity can come at any time of year, but in winter mine struggles to come to the surface. Right now and for the past while, I’ve not felt like creating anything, though not because I haven’t been inspired. There were a couple of weeks early in the month where timing was sweet enough to schedule my daily commute so that I drove into the sunrise every morning and into the sunset every evening.

The sky is inspiring every season, perhaps even more so in the winter. The horizon, so obviously round here in the flatlands, was a gradient of crimson, to golden pink, to mauve and darkening into deep plum twilight in the east. I did take photographs, but due to some tragic malfunction of Mercury (he’s travelling backwards just now), my flash card erased everything from the past month.

But still, I got to drink in the beauty of winter light with my own eyes, and it did settle into my soul nicely. So yes, inspiration abounds. Especially from the words of others. In winter, my own writing recedes as I soak up the words of books, my favourite form of nourishment. I take them in and let them brew and ferment and wait. And sometimes, like today, I have a sudden impulse to write something of my own.

So no photos to document this past month of beautiful winter light. Thankfully, nothing to document the past month of struggling to see the light, to feel warm (even on those unseasonally warm days) in this iron country. But, like iron, we who live here are strong. We always get through it.

After all, is cold not just an absence of heat? Much like darkness is merely an absence of light. The sun, old Helios up in the sky, is an unfailing cure for both, and he does not stay away from Saskatchewan during the winter, even on the days with the least warmth.

Some photos from December 2013.