“If you throw a gopher into the air and he digs a burrow, it’s too windy for field work.”
– Saskatchewan proverb
“If you throw a gopher into the air and he digs a burrow, it’s too windy for field work.”
– Saskatchewan proverb
Scrub cow: a cow of indeterminate and/or mixed lineage. Often characterized by a combination of shades and colours. Considered an inferior sort of cow.
Located 200 km south of Regina, in one of the driest, most rugged environments in the province, the banks of the Big Muddy Valley are so far apart that its floodplain is 3 km wide in places. Some 60 km in length and up to 160 metres deep, the Big Muddy was part of an ancient glacial melt water channel that carried vast quantities of water southeastward at the end of the last ice age.
– Claude-Jean Harel*
Like so much else in Saskatchewan, Castle Butte changes with the light. I make a point to go at least once a year (though it’s so close to home, I should really go more often), and each trip yields a different experience and a different view of this sandstone monolith. I have heard Castle Butte referred to as the “crown jewel” of the Big Muddy Valley. It’s a stunning landmark, to be sure. And yet the very forces which created it – wind and rain – work ceaselessly to undo their masterpiece. Every year, Castle Butte’s sandstone foundation erodes just a little bit more. Heavy rains are particularly hard on it, and those have not been in short supply the last few years.
Castle Butte is an icon in southern Saskatchewan, but it is certainly not a static one. It changes day by day. It changes its appearance according to light and shadow, and it changes imperceptibly at first, but noticeably over time, as the environment wears it away. In the meantime, it is a “must visit” in Saskatchewan. This last visit, rather than climbing to the top (my boots were not cooperating with the slick mud), I wandered about its perimeter and saw things I’d never noticed before. Sometimes it pays to make poor footwear choices.
All photos copyright Kristin Catherwood. July 1, 2014.
Waxing moon. Kristin Catherwood. September 15, 2013.
I recently came across a treasure trove of farming folklore related to the lunar cycles in the R.M. of Key West’s local history book. The folklore was embedded within the Dewey Johnson family history. Henry “Dewey” Johnson was born in 1898 in Selby, South Dakota. He married Leoda Baird, born 1899 in North Dakota. The family history mentions that both of Leoda’s parents “wore guns because of the outlaw Jesse brothers and others who rode through there.” Dewey immigrated to the Ogema district in 1910 where he helped his brothers with their well digging outfit. In this job he “used a willow to witch for water veins.” Dewey and Leoda raised their family in the Ogema district, and their descendants live there still. At the end of their family history, Dewey included this store of farming advice timed to the lunar cycles.
“In an effort to improve productivity, Dewey and Lee were always aware of growing conditions relating to time of year, degree of moisture, methods of tillage, as well as the phase of the moon.
Through constant experimenting and noting results, they arrived at some definite conclusions which assisted them in their day-to-day activities.
Of particular note were the moon phases. They concluded that to promote life, activity should be performed in the light of the moon, preferably two days after the start of the ‘new moon’ phase – i.e.:
1) Transplant all plants in the ‘new moon.’ (Note: most nursery trees have a clipped branch clipped on NORTH side of the tree, plant with this to the NORTH.)
2) Wean and castrate animals in the ‘New Moon’ (Note: Dogs are more gentle, pigs don’t have scabby backs or droopy tails and young animals develop better)
3) Plant vegetables which bear fruit above ground (i.e. peas, beans)
4) Swath crop in the ‘new moon (even if green, it fills and ripens in the swath – peel back the hull and if starting to ripen, swath now in the new moon)
5) Pick vegetables and fruit in the ‘new moon’ (they are crisper and sweeter)
6) Butcher in the ‘new moon’ (meat is tender and will not shrink and splatter when cooked)
DARK of the moon – last three days of last quarter.
1) Prepare ground for garden and field (kill weeds)
2) Spray hard to kill weeds (sow thistle, dandelion, wild oats, mustard)
3) Plant vegetables which produce underground (i.e. potatoes, carrots).*
*Johnson, Henry “Dewey.” 1982. Prairie Grass to Golden Grain, Ogema and District Historical Society, Ogema. 138-139.
“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.