Category Archives: Journeys

Vimy

Led by guides, the machine gunners crept out into craters half-way between their own lines and the Germans. There they took cover until dawn. Just before daylight a bold sergeant named Catherwood crawled out to bring them a bottle of rum. A German machine gun crew spotted him creeping back and opened fire, but he managed to roll into his forward trench unharmed.

 – Pierre Berton, Vimy, 207.

Imagine if one of those bullets had got him. I wouldn’t be typing this. He would never have met Dorthea Wilson, the Welsh nurse. She would never have agreed to leave her life behind and marry him, taking up a new and entirely foreign life in a small homestead shack in the southern prairies of Saskatchewan.

That “bold sergeant” was my great-grandfather, Sherwood. The one who homesteaded out here in 1905, at age 17. He was 28 at Vimy – the same age I am now. He was born in 1888, one hundred years before I was. I’ve always felt an affinity with this ancestor who died decades before I was born. Perhaps that’s why it was important for me to go to Vimy. Important as a Canadian, yes. But also important for my own roots.

Just a few miles away, in the shadow of the infamous ridge, is the grave of another relative of mine, Reginald Freeman. He died more than a year before Vimy Ridge, his life halted at age 20. I was there to visit him, too, in his eternal resting place far from home. But at Vimy, that splendid monument, the signs warning of mines still buried beneath the strikingly green grass, I realized that if it weren’t for that horrific war, I probably would never have been born.

The Catherwood farm might still be here, but it would be different Catherwoods living on it. Sherwood, without going off to war, probably would have eventually married someone else. So yes, Vimy is important to me, to us. It felt eerie to stand on that ground, on a quiet, hot August day, as tourists (myself included) milled about. To know that Sherwood had been there in entirely different circumstances. No peaceful, green scene for him. No, what he knew of Vimy was blood and muck, those grisly scenes so familiar to us from countless black and white photos.

I remember my dad telling that story mentioned in Berton’s book when I was a kid, though we didn’t know it was noted in the historical record. In my dad’s telling, some of the details were missing, others were added. As I recall, in family folklore, Sherwood went out to do something he wouldn’t expect his men to do. The part about him delivering rum was absent. But the machine gunfire aimed his way and his dive into the trench, that was there.

Years later, as a university student, when I read Pierre Berton’s Vimy, there he was – my grandfather. That story. Meaningful. Something I make sure to mention whenever conversations concerning World War I come up. But now as I sit to write this, I wonder, why, why is it important to me? Because my ancestor was part of something famous? Because the story hinted at his bravery? Because I was proud of his service to his country?

I sometimes grow weary of our society’s endless commemorations of war, even though my family has plenty of reason to remember, to never forget. It wasn’t just Sherwood in those trenches – his brothers were there, too, and Reginald. Sherwood’s son, my grandfather, drove tanks in the Second World War. And it didn’t leave them unscathed. Grandpa Orville would never talk about it, but his years of alcoholism likely came about at least in part because his war experience. We often speak of war in the same sentences as “glory” and “valour.” We speak of sacrifice, too. I think the glory and valour fade away long before the sacrifice does.

Distant Vimy
Vimy Ridge National Historic Site. August 8, 2013. Kristin Catherwood.

Sherwood was shell shocked, as they said back then. How could you not be? So was my other great-grandfather, William (Bill) Cooper.  He spoke with a stutter, a legacy of the war, or so I’m told. He served in the British Army. When he returned home to Glossop, Derbyshire afterwards, there was no work for him. So he emigrated, ended up in Saskatchewan, and married a girl named Bernice Freeman. Her brother, Reg, had died in France in 1916. He was to inherit the farm, but now with him never coming home, it was Bill and Bernice who took it over. Their daughter, Joyce, married Orville.

And so again, that war, and how it shaped my family. A sense of pride that my ancestors were part of something so momentous. And the knowledge that, no matter how little they talked about it, the war stayed with them. Had to have. The trauma of it. Clausen and Cashwell, Sherwood’s brothers, were never able to recover. Cashwell ended up in an asylum, and Clausen was a known eccentric, a reclusive bachelor who lived alone in the hills south of our place. Sherwood and Bill managed to go on, to build good lives for themselves and their families. But what demons did they have to face each night when they were alone in the darkness, as we all are in those moments and hours before sleep claims us?

I’m not proud of Sherwood for happening to be at Vimy. I am proud of his courage, certainly, and grateful that those bullets missed him. This battle looms large in the collective memory of (many) Canadians. It’s one of those historic events that has been told and retold so often that the memory of it is more significant than was the event itself. I’m not sure if Vimy Ridge truly did make Canada what it is, as has been claimed. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Vimy has become a symbol for nationhood – one of those things we’re told so often it must be true, right? But even if Vimy’s actual significance is more myth than history, a symbol is a powerful thing. And in my own life, Vimy, and that war, weren’t just symbols of valor, sacrifice, and duty. That war shaped our family in tangible ways.

That hot August day in Nord-pas-de-Calais, as I gazed over the countryside, I thought of the futility of it all. And yet, the utter predictability. Those blood soaked trenches are on ground that has been bloodied again and again throughout time. War after war fought. This great battle just the most recent, and now a hundred years gone. Humans know nothing so well as war. And as I stood beneath the glorious monument, I was struck most by the feeling of grief. I’m not proud of Sherwood for fighting at Vimy Ridge. But still. were it not for Vimy, and for that war, Sherwood wouldn’t have ended up in that Red Cross hospital in Reading, where he met Dorthea, the bespectacled nurse from Cardiff. She patched him up, and somewhere along the way they fell in love, and because of that, I’m here.

Danger
Vimy Ridge National Historic Site. August 8, 2013. Kristin Catherwood.

In a way, we’re war children. But I don’t want to be proud of that war. I want to acknowledge that it happened, and that it was important. I would rather be proud that Sherwood managed to keep the farm together during the tough, depression years of the ’30s. That he maintained a reputation as a kind and clever man, despite his shell shock. Mostly, I’m grateful to him – that he homesteaded where he did, stuck it out through all those tough years, and created the home I love. My roots are here in the Gap country, and it was Sherwood who planted them. In the end, the war, and Vimy Ridge, were just something that happened in his life, something he was lucky to survive, and something that brought him to the same place at the same time as Dorthea.

IMAG0014.JPG
Sherwood and Dorthea, 1918.

 

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Where it is

When I called Archie to ask directions to his ranch, they were a bit vague. I was coming from the south, Big Beaver way, I explained. “Oh yes, well take the road up the hill there and then you’ll go through the coulee, and you’ll pass the place that used to be Clarks’, and then take the north-south road for four miles and then take the first east-west road.”

Archie is 95, so you could attribute the ambiguity of these directions to a failing mind. But not so. Archie is sharp as a tack, and as he described the way to his ranch in his careful way, I was picturing the roads in my mind. It’s an area I know pretty well, well enough that I knew to simply keep heading in a northeasterly direction, and somehow, I’d make it.

And I did, without a single wrong turn. Archie’s directions were borne out of a lifetime of living in the same place. And my ability to follow them was based in my short lifetime of getting to know rural southern Saskatchewan – understanding how it’s laid out, patterns of road maintenance, and perhaps a tiny bit of instinctual wisdom. Local directions are often vague like the ones Archie gave me, sometimes almost incomprehensible to a stranger. Last week, when traveling to a northern town, I was told how to get to the venue where I was hosting a workshop: “it’s down where the old hospital used to be.” The old hospital no longer exists in tangible form, and I had never been to this town before. Those directions were almost useless to me. But to the person giving them, the map composed of memory made absolute sense. The place just is where it is.

In rural Saskatchewan, there’s almost no use talking about kilometers. Metric measurements just don’t fit on a landscape that was laid out on the old imperial system. But even so, measuring miles still somehow doesn’t take the amount of time it’s supposed to. Four miles on a straight paved road is not the same as four miles on a twisty-turny up-and-down gravel road. You can set your odometer all you like, but somehow it doesn’t always seem to turn out. As for GPS coordinates – you can give them a try, but I wouldn’t rely on them. It’s almost as if these places move, shift themselves in different types of weather, or sidle back and forth in tune with the rotation of the earth. They just don’t want to seem to line up with maps and measurements -at least not precise ones. Or so it seems to me. I’d rather rely on directions of the type Archie gave. I trust them more.

A place is where it is, and it takes as long as it takes to get there.

Rounding the Curve

On the 18 heading east, just out of Big Beaver, and the road drops down into a steep curve. It was icy so I had slowed down, and good thing because as I rounded the curve, a half-dozen prairies chickens and as many mule deer greeted me. Only one deer was actually on the road, and he bounded off quickly into the coulee at the side of the road to join his fellows. But the prairie chickens were in a panic, and one of them slid and skidded on the ice, wings flapping frantically, little legs all askew. It about broke my heart. Who hasn’t looked silly trying to keep upright on a slippery surface? Who hasn’t panicked in the face of something unexpected bearing down upon you? The hen righted herself and scuttled away, perhaps a bit embarrassed, and a lot relieved, to join the rest of her flock.

And I continued on down the highway because what else could I do?

The setting sun had cast a pinkish hue glowing on the hills that I kept driving down and into, and I hope the prairie chickens and the deer managed to find a cozy corner of a coulee to bed down in. As for me, I was driving into my own predicament, little did I know it. One quick decision to go forward when I should have turned back and suddenly, I was stuck in a snowdrift across a gravel road.

As I waited for my help to arrive in the form of a friend who I called upon in my moment of need, my thoughts turned back to rounding that curve, how I had been just as surprised by the deer and the prairie chickens as they were by me. As night fell darker and the cold grew even more bitter, a slight trickle of unease wormed its way down my spine. I had my cell phone, and help was on its way. I knew I would get out of my spot of trouble and get on home to my own warm bed. But sitting there alone in the cold darkness, well in the “middle of nowhere”, sitting in the middle of a road that no one had driven down in a good half hour, I thought about how movement can be arrested so quickly. I thought about how lucky I was. But even more, I thought about how lucky that prairie chicken was that I had slowed rounding the curve.

Mountains High Valleys Low

I remember standing on the summit of some mountain in the Selkirks in BC, looking out over an expanse of snow-capped peaks, a sight so breathtaking as to be almost unbelievable. The air was clean and cold, bracing, and summer wildflowers were blooming in splotches of red and purple low to the ground. I remember how awe-inspiring it was, and I remember how nothing about it spoke to me. It was like listening to poetry in a language unknown to you – you can hear the beauty of it, but there is no meaning.

Just a few weeks ago, I stood in the basin of a desert valley about 300 feet below sea level. About as far from the snow capped peaks of the Selkirks as you can get. The air was hot, so hot it felt almost pure. The sun so bright I could hardly keep my eyes open. It was so far from home, much further than the Selkirks, and it was in a different country, in more ways than one. And yet, it spoke to me, and I could understand it.

I don’t know if it was the glare of the sun or the quality of the heat, or the deceptive emptiness of it, but I recognized it. It spoke to me in my mother tongue.

Thoughts from the Main Line

An old town on the main line, where the trains still whistle through, even if they don’t stop very often or very long any longer. On a walk through unfamiliar streets, I suddenly reach almost the edge of town just as the brash horn blasts into the stillness of the warm end-of-summer evening. The train roars through, its cars illuminated by the streetlights and the stars above. They’re loaded with shipping containers, double decker, the type you see stacked up on the docks of large harbours. Now they’re strung out in a long, seemingly never-ending line charging across the flat landscape. As they flash by, I can see that many read “China Shipping,” a tantalizing cue to their origins and their possible contents. I wonder what’s in them, where they’re bound, from what sort of factory did their contents originate. Whose were the hands who assembled them, and what sort of life did the work of producing goods for insatiable Western consumers permit? I imagine these containers sitting on the docks in Vancouver, being loaded up, precipitously making their way around and through the Rockies, bursting out into the prairie and making a run for it straight through to the bush and muskeg before being unloaded again…where? Toronto? Montreal? To be unloaded, their contents shuttled here and there, probably some loaded on semi-trailers to be brought back West and delivered to various and sundry merchants, from Dollaramas to Wal-Marts to the local hardware store in this very town.

I missed the start of the train, but bringing up the rear was the familiar red Canadian Pacific engine, along for the ride this time, but soon enough to be taking on the burden of leading the way. Canadian Pacific. A world of meaning in those two words strung together. The CPR, the CP Line, the Banff Springs Hotel, Rogers Pass, blasting through mountains with nitro-glycerine, brand new towns named by CP surveyors, now towns without any train at all, some of them dead or dying, or maybe even thriving. Ribbons of steel, the last spike at Craigellachie, grand dining cars. All of these random and seemingly unrelated images spring to mind – all united by the CPR.

The whole thing can’t last more than two minutes, and yet so many images and thoughts swirl through my mind. How the quiet of the evening, overly punctuated, like too many commas in a run-on sentence, with the discordant whining of vehicles on the Trans-Canada Highway, was so disturbed by the sudden assault of the train. How I enjoyed the onslaught, how I’ve always loved hearing and watching trains go about their work. How it’s rare, since down in my country, in the Gap, there are no trains anymore, just decaying tracks. I think about how many hands have been involved in the common spectacle unfolding in front of my eyes – from the manufacture of the mysterious contents inside those shipping containers, to the containers themselves, to the people who operated the machines to get them on a train in China, to a dockyards somewhere in Asia, to a ship bound across the Pacific, to be unloaded in Vancouver, probably, to load them onto this Canadian train, and so on and so forth. The engineers, too, who are guiding this train, and the men who laid this track all those years ago, some of them perhaps underpaid, undervalued workers from China. Then there are the workers who maintain those tracks now, and the ones operating the schedules to ensure there’s only one train on any one given stretch of track at any one particular time.

I think all of this, and even more, but most of all I am struck by something powerful in its ordinariness.

to find a ghost

Andy — today I went looking for your ghost in Wood Mountain. Rounding the last curve on Highway 18 heading east, it appears suddenly. But without three elevators, without even one to announce itself, it must be content with an oversized sign.  A grand introduction, as if to challenge the assumptions of the uninitiated that this tiny place might be unimportant.

Wood Mountain – the overlarge sign proclaims, hinting at a grandeur not immediately obvious. But, with only a smidgen of curiosity, hints of its grandiosity can be found.

First – the land itself. It was one of those days, Andy, when the sky is weighted with scattered, puffy clouds, and the wind is strong enough (stronger than enough) to send them scudding hither and thither, so that their shadows sweep up and down the hills.         It’s the time of year when the grass is maturing, ripening into yellow. Even with the abundance of rain this year, the hills mellow to burnished gold. And on them the cattle work at their eternal grazing, as tatanka once did.

The town itself is quiet and I do not linger overlong. I find nothing of you there, except echoes of bits of remembered lines. The closed up Trail’s End with the tree growing right where people used to lounge and smoke and fistfight. The tree is big enough to suggest how long it’s been since a rye and Coke or a Pilsner were last served behind the wall it now leans against.

But just south, where the land drops down into heavily bushed coulee, revealing why the place is named what it is, there is more life, and more whispers that contain your name.     The park, with its boughs of browning poplar piled atop the stands – green a few weeks ago when they shaded spectators of the Sports. Yes, Andy, the rodeo continues, when so much else does not.

People are camping in their big trailers tucked awkwardly into niches carved out of the trees. There is a brand new swimming pool, its chlorinated water a startling blue contrast to the yellowing hills and dusty green trees surrounding it. I wonder idly at the volume of water contained within its concrete walls – such a precious thing that people paddle around in. Its newness, and the money it took to build it, seem boastful compared to the aging museum beside it.

That is where I finally find you, Andy. In the Rodeo Ranch Museum. They have some of your poems in stock this time – a glossy reprint with a stylized Sitting Bull on the cover. I’m very glad to see it, though I do prefer my own dogeared copy, the one I tracked down with some effort, a retired library book sold online. The Sitting Bull on my copy is faded, like an old photograph. It seems more fitting, somehow. But if people are going to discover your poetry behind a slick, updated cover, there’s no harm in that.

I find you in a few other places, too. But more poignantly, I find the folks who peopled your poems scattered throughout the place, their names as familiar as old friends. Like Vasile Tonita, and some of the other Romanians. I find intimate details about them, like their dates of birth and the number of children they had.

And outside the wind blew through the grass and for all that has changed, I guess that one thing at least has remained the same. I did not find your ghost in Wood Mountain today, Andy.

But I was only passing through. Perhaps if I stayed awhile, let the place seep into me and I into it for a time, I would find your ghost, or it would find me. Or maybe your ghost haunts some other place, Wood Mountain too full of restless spirits already to accommodate another one, even that of a poet.

 

 

 

The things that can break your heart

The things that can split your heart wide open.

Like the young man across from me on an airplane, headed west. Overheard snippets of conversation. The man, my age or a bit younger, being asked if he’s from Regina – the polite chit chat of a middle aged couple establishing roots with their seatmate (this happens more often on flights out west, I’ve noticed).

No, the young man is not from Regina. He’s from Cape Breton, and this he says with quiet conviction. And as he continues explaining why he’s out west (work, of course), the proof of his declaration is borne out in his accent, the rolling vowels, the touches of Gaelic which remain in the pronunciation, whether he speaks a word of it or not.

Time passes, the cabin quiets down. Snacks have been munched, drinks sipped, garbage collected, and at one point I glance over and notice that the young man from Cape Breton has fallen asleep, head against the window, hands clasped neatly on the seat tray in front of him. Something about it catches me, enough to write about it. The thought of how homesick he must be right now, how it was revealed in the quick and proud way he placed himself as not from somewhere, from somewhere else. How much he must dread chasing the sunset at 30,000 feet, knowing it takes him away. That perhaps his gently clasped hands would rather be put to work back home, on Cape Breton Island.

How different it feels to be going home. How much you can tell about someone, just from the way they fall asleep on an airplane, quietly taking no more space than needed, hands one on top of the other, as if in prayer. He must be polite, respectful. And what am I, the one sneaking furtive glances from across the aisle in my own chronic wakefulness? Writing on an airplane. But I find the image so striking I can’t help but look again.

Maybe I’m just channeling Alistair MacLeod. Or maybe I recognised something of myself in him, when I used to fly back east, away from home.

Whatever it is, it breaks my heart somehow.