Down here in the southern hills, things shift, change, are noticeably different.
The roads narrow and get rougher. The hills rise and get higher. Time seems to slow down, somehow.
Haste has no place here, but urgency can arise, when a fire needs fighting, a calf needs pulling, a crop needs harvesting.
There are spirits dwelling here in these southern hills, deities of some kind that have been here since the last glacier scraped the earth raw, or even before. They are watchful and silent, but if you know where to go, you can feel them, can hear them. If you know how to listen.
Trouble sleeping, and eating, and concentrating on necessary tasks. Scatter-brained, daydreamy, just a touch out of sorts. All the symptoms of falling in love, but it’s not a man who has captured my attention. It’s the land.
Sometimes it’s a Monday evening and it’s been a long day and you really just need to get home, make yourself a proper meal, get to bed early for once, and make a “to-do” list for tomorrow so all the things that need to be done aren’t just rattling around un-tethered in your brain.
But to get home you have to drive through sixty miles or so of prairie in June, when the sun is angling itself down towards dusk. And then you get into the Gap, and you’re almost home and then you see that the twilit eastern sky is settling into a particular shade of mauve behind the creek bank for a few brief moments before darkening to amaranth. What can a person do but stop and be in that moment? And try to clumsily capture a few photographs. But the prairie sky, photogenic as it is, refuses to be held captive by something as aloof and obtuse as a camera, and so the results are never quite what it was really like to be there beside that crick, with all the birds singing their evensongs and the mosquitoes buzzing around with a certain anxious grace, and some cows meditatively munching grass in the nearby pasture. Not to mention the quality of the air – the tenderness it offered, an accommodating softness few human lovers could manage.
Needless to say, my supper went uncooked, my bedtime was delayed, and the “to-do” list didn’t get done. So yeah, it’s sort of like being in love, living through these long June evenings down here in the Gap. It feels like those first blissful moments of a new romance, when everything seems like it’s going to turn out all right after all.
I always thought that crocuses were rare things, endangered things. A source of early spring delight, always, for their brave appearance long before any other bloom is a sure sign that winter is truly on its way out.
I’ve only ever seen crocuses in small, lonely bunches, a few blooms huddled together, half-hidden among grass that has yet to go green. This spring, I went up to the Sidehill to look for some on “the hill.” I found a few, isolated clumps of them, each discovery inspiring a thrill of excitement.
Then I wandered a little farther afield, into the adjoining pasture land, a place of native prairie. And stopped. For on either side of me was a carpet of crocus, hundreds of them. More than I ever thought could have existed in one place at one time. A flower so fragile as to be rare almost everywhere thrives here.
And I wondered why I hadn’t known about this place before. In all my years of wandering in those hills, how had I not known that this was a place of abundance for the delicate, prairie crocus? Had I truly lived through so many dull springs, some of them with an utter absence of crocuses?
Or did they come out just for me just this once, never to be seen in such profusion again? How will I know except to wait through another long winter, and make sure that I get up in those hills at just the right time again. To see if what is rare can be common.
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.
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.
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.
It’s one of the hardest things for us humans to do – to accept that we can never know.
Never know what is like to die, and what comes after
Never know what is inside another’s heart, soul, mind
Never know if we made the right choice, or not
Never know if we should speak up or stay silent
Never know if what we have done made any difference at all, to anyone
Never know if things could have been different, if only
Never know if tomorrow’s tomorrow will be better than today
Never know if any of it means anything at all.
And yet, that’s all there is to know. That we can’t know. That there is no real certainty. That life itself is a giant gamble, and we don’t even know the stakes, though the terror that claws at us from within hints that they might be higher than we ever imagined.
Or perhaps the fear is that there are no stakes, never were, and we’re just hurtling around on this planet imagining that we’re here for something other than just to live for a little while, and here we are wasting time wondering if it means anything.
It’s a Sunday night, when that familiar existential dread creeps in, and all the rustling of the desiccated autumn leaves and the golden glimmer of the harvest moon are reminding us of the tenuousness of everything. Soon those drying leaves will fall and even sooner the robust moon will have shrunk away to nothing.
But among these morose thoughts, almost despite my own melancholy leanings, I recognize something else, something that I can know. Whether or not I or anyone I love is here to witness it or not, those fallen leaves will give life to something. And new leaves will grow. And the moon will again appear, first as a delicate curvature of fine silver, and then, without fail, will grow proud and full again, whether the clouds cover her or not.
So I contradict myself, or perhaps return to prove the point. I know so little that it’s almost nothing, but what I do know is enough to recognize what is precious.
When I consider…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here?
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Standing on a hill with the land tumbling down before me and the immense sky seeming fit to swallow everything whole, it’s impossible not to feel small. But, in being alone here save for a few deer grazing nearby and an unidentifiable bird wheeling high above, I can’t help but feel large, too. I don’t know if it’s just the prairies that can make a person feel both infinitesimal and grandiose at the same time. I think of all the billions of people who are not here, never will be here, have never heard of here, and even if they had, likely would take no great pains to get themselves here. And I wonder, like Pascal and countless others since have, “who put me here?”