Last fall, my Uncle Harold, 92 years old, returned to the prairies for a short time. Born and raised here, he’s lived in BC now for more than 60 years. But still, somehow he was in alignment with the elements of his birthplace.
It was a sunny day, 25 degrees, the first of October, a Saturday. Harvest in full swing, rushing to its end, but still some crop out. Harold warned the harvesters, “you have one good day left.” He could smell the snow in the wind, he claimed. Hard to believe when the day felt like August.
Monday the wind and rain started, continued through Tuesday, and Wednesday, the snow. Harold’s nose smelled true.
He used to witch for water, too. Could tell where it was even without the rods, or so he says.
I can smell rain, it’s true. But only when it’s an hour away, not a day or more. Does one learn to witch, or are you born with it?
Growing up, I knew folk from my community who claimed to be a relation of the infamous Jesse James. I’ve talked to more than one landowner who claims that Sitting Bull and his followers “rode right through the yard” though at the time, it wasn’t a yard yet. The Big Muddy Valley claims the #1 stop on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Outlaw Trail.
All of these claims are…just that. Claims. Whether historically true or not, they conjure evocative images. Why do so many communities want to be affiliated with the tragic, political mess that was the Sitting Bull saga? Why would anyone claim kinship with a notorious criminal? Why are people proud to speak of the Big Muddy’s reputation as a playground for horse and cattle thieves?
In the Old World, there were many folk ballads concerning Robin Hood, the outlaw of Sherwood Forest who famously stole from the rich to give to the poor. In the West, similar ballads about Jesse James emerged, though there was no real evidence he ever held up trains out of any sense of philanthropy. The money he distributed to his followers was to secure loyalty. And yet, the idea of James as a folk hero endures. Sitting Bull is, depending on who you talk to, another folk hero, the man who defeated Custer and defied the American government by seeking refuge in Canada. On our side of the Medicine Line, we grasp onto the Sitting Bull story, make much of the few years he spent in Canada. Certainly, it was a historically significant event. But it is much more significant in our local folklore. Sitting Bull’s story occupies a much larger space in our imaginations and collective memory than in any history textbook.
The cowboy outlaws of the deserts and plains of western North America have been romanticized in film, song, poetry, and in the collective imagination, including here in southern Saskatchewan. Notorious outlaws like Dutch Henry, Sam Kelly, the Pigeon-Toed Kid, and others were known for rustling cattle and horses on the Canadian side of the Line, driving them down to be sold in Montana, then turning around and herding them back up across the Line to be sold again on this side. They had a few tricks to help evade capture, but in the end they all met ignominious ends – either winding up dead somewhere, in jail, or simply fading into obscurity. Their hijinks only lasted a few years, but the stories we tell about them are still going strong.
We venerate the underdog, the rascal, the ones who thumb their noses at the status quo, for they are living out our secret desires to throw off the shackles of whatever our particular life has us chained to – responsibility, poverty, unrequited love, unrealized potential.
The West is a land of myth and legend. Its landscape lends itself to these images – to people who live on the fringes, people who are as wild as the geography itself. I can’t say I wouldn’t want to be a relation to Jesse James myself.
The other day, a young man of Cree heritage told me this:
“When I was a little kid, I was scared of the northern lights. Because if you whistled at them, they would come down and take you away.”
This is old lore from the North, where the woods are thick and the lakes deep. In the north, I’ve noticed, the sky seems closer to the land. The northern lights shimmer with more depth, more urgency. They are not so rare, so transitory as they are down here in the South.
I talked to a few other people from the North that day, and learned that this is a common belief, the sort of warning grown-ups pass on to children: don’t whistle, or the northern lights will come and steal you away.
And where do you think the northern lights would take you, if you dared to call them down?
There are often rumours of cougars in these parts…unconfirmed sightings, lambs taken with nothing left but patches of wool on top of bales, unearthly screams in the night. If it were Ireland or some other Gaelic country, those screams would be ascribed to otherwordly banshees, mythical creatures of dread and doom.
An old lady told me the other day that, on the plains, an old story goes that people would hear screaming in the night and think it was a woman being beaten by her husband. In the empty night, miles between everything, there could be no help for her.
But eventually, it was realised that the eerie sound was not an abused woman, but a cougar.
Or was it?
I have heard these sounds long after dark, attributed to some animal or another, maybe a bird of some kind. But I can’t say for sure what it is that screams in the night.
In a place like this, life is determined by the environment. The weather is omnipotent, like a god. It is always raining too much, or not enough, or not at all. If wheat is king, then rain is the power behind the throne.
And so it isn’t surprising that people whose livelihoods depend on the ungovernable whims of the weather would seek to wrest some sort of control from the void of uncertainty.
Divination, prognostication, prophecy – the foretelling of the future. As if by knowing ahead of time we can somehow change things that cannot be changed. Some might call it magic, witchcraft even. But the customs I am about to impart were not practiced by stereotypical old crones murmuring over bubbling cauldrons – or at least, not exclusively. Rather, they were carried out by Saskatchewan farmers within the last fifty years, perhaps right up to this day. And it usually happened on New Year’s Eve, or so I’ve been told.
What would happen is this:
The farmer took six walnuts, split them in half, cleared out the nutmeat, and placed the twelve empty shells on the mantel. Each husk represented a month. He filled them with water, the same exact amount in each, and retired for the night. The next morning, the first in the new calendar year, he checked each shell’s water level. The amount in each husk corresponded with the amount of moisture each month in the year would bring.
The farmer cut up an onion, creating twelve equally sized “dishes.” These were filled with equal amounts of salt before the farmer went to bed. In the morning, he examined how much water had been sweated out of each onion to foretell the rainfall in each month of the coming year.
I’ve been told these methods of divination really worked. Whether they did or they didn’t, they were done. If I had known of this custom, and tried it last December 31st, would the walnut husks or the onion bowls have been dry as a bone in May and June?
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?
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.
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.
I used to try to hold desperately on to summer. I hated winter with such a vengeance that every sign of autumn was unwelcome, no matter how beautiful. I dreaded the first honks of migrating geese while simultaneously feeling moved by their sheer numbers, their incredible journey. I resented their Vs flying south because it meant winter was coming. I’ve learned to appreciate autumn more, and even winter. I’ve learned to love each season for what it is.
This year, I feel ready for winter to come. I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I can accept it. This change in mindset has been slowly changing for years, but it solidified last year when I was working on Master’s thesis. I spent nearly every day of September, October and November outside. I had never been so intimately acquainted with Nature on a daily basis before. The autumn unfolded slowly in front of my eyes. When winter did come, it was not an unwelcome shock as it had always been when I lived in the city away from Nature or when I was younger and blinder. It was simply the natural unfolding of events. It was time.
Because I spent so much time outdoors, I also noticed things I had never paid attention to before. I’ve always considered myself a Nature lover, someone who goes gamboling about just because I enjoy fresh air and the beauty of the natural world. But I had never had the opportunity to just be in it for such a stretch of uninterrupted time before. I had never had the chance to let it seep into me. It changed my life. This blog exists because of it. And so here are some of the harbingers of the coming winter.
Leaves and lack thereof All trees have their own schedules and agendas. Here in Saskatchewan we don’t have the brilliant foliage displays like they have back East; the trees go about their business more quietly. Some begin to change in early September, some trees have shed their summer adornment completely by the first of October. Others take their time about it, like the stately poplar in my yard that just changed colour last week and is still clinging onto the last of its leaves. It has also shared some of them via a west wind with the evergreens across the lawn.
Bearing of fruit My garden (my first) came into its full fruition. The spuds were the last to go, and what a harvest it was. Wild plants have also borne fruit, like the wild roses along the ditch who are proudly displaying their hips.
Birds There is nothing as awe-inspiring as the great autumn migrations, nothing. The sandhill cranes have been and gone, uttering their strange guttural cries. The geese are just coming now in their giant flocks – tens of thousands in one field, sometimes. I can hear them at night as they rest on Stink Lake a few miles to the northeast. The blackbirds left earlier. Some of the smaller birds leave so quietly that I don’t notice until they return with their happy songs in the spring. Right now I am obsessed with the Tundra swans that have taken up temporary residence on the wetland north of home and the slough south of home, hence the excessive amount of swan photos. I’ve never seen so many in one year before. I hope they like the looks of the Gap and decide to come back next year, too.
Digging in Burrowing mammals are digging in and getting settled for the cold to come. The most obvious form of this is the muskrat house. Muskrats live in sloughs and other bodies of water. Around this time of year, their houses start popping up, built of mud and grass and other local materials. Truly vernacular architecture. Folklore says that the size of muskrat houses determines the severity of the coming winter. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, we might be in for a cold one.
Light and shadow It wasn’t until last year that I truly understood the movement of the sun and how it determines the seasons. As I photographed barns every day, I had to keep changing the settings on my camera as the days progressed. I finally realised the obvious: the sun was changing position in the sky, slowly but surely. It sits lower in the sky. Shadows lengthen – even in the fullness of the afternoon, they are longer than in the summer. The angle of the sunlight casts a golden hue on everything. To each season, its own light. And me, chasing it.