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?