Every spring the runoff flows down a slight decline to fill the dugout. It was engineered that way about fifty years ago – a very simple sort of engineering, but an alteration to the natural landscape so that the farm could have water for human and livestock.
So although the flow of the spring runoff past our trees (planted, not native, and thus another imposition on the natural landscape, but that’s another story) is man-made, it seems natural, and it works in tandem with nature’s natural ways. The water flows downhill and collects in a basin – in this case, a deep hole that was dug out of the earth – hence the name, dugout. Simple. Vital.
Runoff time is an exciting event in the year, when winter’s grip finally loosens and the pent up accumulation of a few months’ worth of precipitation with it. Some years the flow is too much, risking flooding the yard. Other years, when there’s not a lot of snow, the flow is minimal, just enough to fill the dugout. This year it’s about normal in my estimation.
Today was colder than the last few have been, and so the water that had started running froze up, its movement arrested. Like time standing still.
One of the reasons I even noticed this is because I’m out at the farm for the time-being, keeping my dad company and waiting out a pandemic. Normal work obligations and hustle bustle have ceased, as they have for much of the western world. Our movement has been arrested. Only what is essential continues to operate.
And because of it, I have the time to wander around the farm the way I did when I was a young girl, watching spring’s unfolding, noticing things, being present. Observing man-made engineering slow to a halt at Nature’s whim.
When the zucchini hangs heavy on the vine, pick it and process it. It will generously lend itself to a multitude of preparations – soups, sweets, and simpler dishes too. But eat it. As much as you can while it lasts.
When the clothes closet demands a clearing out of unnecessary articles, answer the call. Sort this from that and give away what is no longer needed – not necessarily to those “less fortunate” whateverthatmeans, but to those who will use it, who might want it. The unwearable may be turned into a shop rag. An old, holey sock may still serve a purpose in soaking up leaked oil at the combine.
When the larder grows lean, provision it. First from your own solar stores, that being the garden and the field. Then, from what you can find near, that produce grown by friends and neighbours to be found at the farmers market. Finally, and when all other avenues are exhausted, the grocery store.
When the body feels out of sorts and full of malaise, work it. Stretch its limbs and strengthen its muscles. Stoop and bend in the garden, walk miles on dirt roads, even run them if you can. Contort yourself on a yoga mat, or better, on grass.
When the body is sore from exertion, soak it in hot butnottoohot water, and salts if they are near to hand. While in the bath, tend to your mind’s worries and your heart’s sorrows. Invite the soul’s help in this, for it will know what is needful if you can listen.
When words rattle around in your head all day, asking to be written down, do so. Write them down. Let them come out and place themselves upon a page, whether by pen or otherwise. Editing and revisions can come later, if they are needed. They may not be needed. Sometimes it comes out just right the first time.
When the new moon rises in Virgo, invisible to the eye, make a list of the tasks at hand. And tend to them
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.
Hot lunch hour on Scarth Street and I sat on the same quad of benches as the old man fiddling. He played the same four tunes again and again. I wondered how long he’d been playing and how he learned. So I asked.
79 years, he’s been playing, since he was 4 years old. Where’s he from? Grand View Manitoba, just over the border from Yorkton. His mother was born there, grandparents came in 1869. I asked from where, though I could guess the answer from his accent: Kyiv, Ukraine, he said proudly.
His grandfather worked for 12 cents an hour on the railroad. When he’d saved enough, he bought a homestead for 12 dollars: “it was all boosh, that country.”
His grandmother taught him to play, she played in the Symphony Orchestra back in Ukraine. He still has her violin, a Strad, he says, though he doesn’t bring that to Scarth Street of course. He brings the violin he bought at the junk shop, though it’s old, from 1604, he says.
He comes 2 or 3 times a week to Scarth Street, for it’s something to do, he says, since he’s been alone these 39 years and there’s no one to talk to at home but the walls, and they don’t answer.
Finally I asked his name: Bill. Shook his hand and tossed a loonie in his case, it bounced twice before settling into the worn velveteen beside a couple toonies, another loonie, and some scattered small change. It was all I had.
I don’t know if Bill’s tales were true or not, and it doesn’t matter. I hope he keeps on playing there on Scarth Street.
When I was a kid, we learned about Louis Riel. We learned that there used to be a lot of bison everywhere and that First Nations people from various groups hunted them using bows and arrows and buffalo jumps and buffalo pounds, and that they made use of every part of the animal, down to the sinew. We were taught that a lot of place names in Saskatchewan, including that of the province itself, came from First Nations words, though besides place names, I knew no words in any aboriginal language. We learned that they had signed treaties back a long time ago which meant that the white people got most of the land. We learned that some bad things had happened, like residential schools. I attended maybe one powwow somewhere at one point in my life. This is not to cast aspersions on my teachers, who were good teachers. They were doing their jobs, teaching what was required of them from the curriculum. So we had to learn about some aboriginal stuff, but we also had to learn about a bunch of other stuff, and that was just the way it was and I didn’t question it. Always a good student and a thoughtful person, I figured I was pretty well-informed. I even went through two university degrees and by the end of it all I thought I was pretty smart, I knew a lot of stuff, I was no dummy, and I was certainly not ignorant.
Or so I thought. Last year I applied for a job with a cultural organization, and during the interview I was asked how much experience I had working with aboriginal people. I knew the question was coming, and I was honest in my answer – “none so far, but I’m interested in working with aboriginal communities.” It was the “right” thing to say, and it was also true. But I didn’t admit that I felt intimidated by the process, that maybe, it was easier to just go on mostly ignoring my aboriginal neighbours as I had done all my life to that point. It was pretty easy to do. There were no reserves within a couple hours of my home, I didn’t live in a city, and so I could go about my life without coming in contact with very many aboriginal people.
I got the job, and not long after I started, I attended a cultural event where I was supposed to talk about my role and the organization I worked for. I was supposed to talk about culture. It was the first time in my life that I was the only white person in a group, a fact of which I was acutely conscious. I was nervous that I would say something stupid, offend someone unwittingly, nervous that I would be regarded as the White Girl sashaying in with all my materials and my ready offers of “help.” I was smart enough to realize as soon as I arrived that I was not there to teach anyone anything. I was there to listen. And to learn.
I fell back on the comfortable, old “where are you from?” icebreaker to start connecting with people. I got answers like Beardy’s, Gordon’s, Standing Buffalo. I knew enough to know they were referring to reserves. But I had no idea where any of them were, and I didn’t ask. I realized, with that squirmy, embarrassed feeling – in fact, a burning-faced, ashamed feeling, that I had just stumbled into my own ignorance.
The map of Saskatchewan is “easy to draw, hard to pronounce!” as kitschy t-shirts proclaim with glee. It’s also hard to understand, just looking at it. Road maps are different from geological maps are different from the maps we carry around in our own heads. I realized in that moment that the Saskatchewan I knew was just one version of it, and a highly skewed version at that. I couldn’t place any reserves except for a few. They had no meaning in my map of Saskatchewan, and yet they meant everything. Their existence enabled my great-grandfathers to claim quarter-sections of land as their own. My home and everything connected with it, every single emotion tied to this particular patch of earth, owes its existence to those reserves and the treaties which had created them. And I knew so little, I this well-educated, self-aware, proudly intellectual person. I knew nothing at all.
That was the day I began my real education, the one I did not have access to in elementary and high school, the one I did not go looking for in university because at the time, it didn’t “interest” me. A year after my lesson in ignorance, I know that I have lessened it. I know better, I know more. I have faced uncomfortable truths and difficult realities. I have been welcomed, I have been taught. There is no going back, and I wouldn’t want to even if I could. There is only going forward, and this journey has only just begun.