Category Archives: Reflections

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.

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Sherwood and Dorthea, 1918.

 

Why I Cannot Sleep

I believe I will never quite know,

Though I play at the edges of knowing,

truly I know

our part is not knowing.

– Mary Oliver, “Bone,” Why I Wake Early

 

It’s one of the hardest things for us humans to do – to accept that we can never know.

Truly.

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.

 

 

 

Here

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?”

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It takes nothing to forget

It was her birthday yesterday, she would have been 57. It’s hard to imagine that, since she wasn’t yet 40 when she died.

We used to go to the cemetery on her birthday, take flowers, sometimes roses from the farm since this is when they bloom.

But we didn’t this year. Busy with other things and to be honest I forgot until the day was nearly over. A day passes quickly these days.

And that’s just how easy it is to forget. As easy as remembering used to be. It takes something to remember. It takes nothing to forget.

Things that Last

I believe only in things lasting forever.

– Andrew Suknaski

It’s like he knew me when he wrote that, me and all the others with that particular kind of restlessness that resists itself. I don’t want to be restless, changeable, mutable. I want to sit tight, burrow in, become part of something permanent. But my very nature rebels against it, especially when I try my hardest to make it so.

What holds me here? Is there anything that anchors me, anything beyond my own will, my own deep-seated conviction that here is where I must be? Even when I do not feel as “here” as I want to, as I used to.

Of course, fickle beings we are, and me as fickle as the rest, can change our minds, can get caught up in flights of fancy which soon depart, borne away by practical words carried on west winds. Or, our fancies are dulled by the routine of getting by, of doing what’s got to be done, or so we’re told, tell ourselves, believe in lieu of the alternative(s).

This land, steady and knowing beneath me, this blanket of blackest night hanging over me, hold a wisdom I want to learn, but they do not give it up easily. I ask what I should I do, where I should go, if I should stay. Not even the omnipresent wind stirs in reply.

Perhaps it’s not the wind’s job, nor the stars, nor the land’s itself to direct my course. Maybe I am not a sparrow in a stormy night, batted about and at the mercy of some force greater than myself. It is a thought both liberating and terrifying.

And what if some energy from some distant place is stirring within me, calling for me?  To heed it, or not?

Is it enough to be tethered, rather than anchored?

For me, nothing is ever enough.

 I’m still here and what has not changed is
my inability to change
move on
though I’m forever moving on.

– Andrew Suknaski

Dead tree
kristin catherwood|fromthegap.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next Year Country

“There was always the land, those acres a man could walk over at sunset… His own land. No matter how sandy, rocky, dark, or rich, owning land was the triumph of it all. He could pick up his soil and let it sift through  his fingers and say, “This is mine.” If you have not been close to the land, you will never know that emotion.”

– Barry Broadfoot, Next Year Country.

 

There’s a saying, a mentality, which underscores life here: “next year country.” Its meaning is both obvious and elusive, for the plain, simple statement, sums up its literal meaning: “this is next year country” means that next year is always going to be better. When the crop is only fair, or fails entirely, it’s time to turn to next year. But what does better mean? It is not the same as the grass is always greener. It’s pure, unbridled optimism in a land full of glass half-empty people.

Sometimes I get a little melancholy when I read writing that is so perfect, and I think, what’s the point of me writing at all? These others who came before have already written what I want to write. When I’m out and about and something pops into my mind and I get that exhilarating feeling, that thrill of rightness which manifests in gooseflesh and a muted giddiness felt deep in the guts – only to discover moments or months later that someone else has already articulated that exact notion, that thought has already crystallized and been given external form by somebody before me. So what are those thrills for, anyway? Is it enough to just feel them, or must I give voice to them as well? We are always taught to be innovative explorers, to always have something new to offer the world. If we want to write a book, it better be about something no one’s ever written before or there isn’t a chance in hell of it ever seeing the light of day.

Then the copycats may follow for we live in a world of imitation. So maybe I’m just a copycat after all, rehashing what the wise ones before me have already thought, said, and written. But then I remember how every story ever told has its roots somewhere in some ancient, nebulous source where all stories come from. That we have been telling and re-telling the same stories, with different characters and settings and simpler and more elaborate plots, throughout time. So maybe it’s worth something for me to keep writing anyway, even if what I have to say isn’t new. It’s just my way of saying it.

Next year country: to hope for something better, to keep on against the odds because, somehow, it’s worth doing.

Sun Stands Still

The olde year now away is fled,
The new year it is entered

– Traditional

Longest night, but not darkest night. Not this year. Not with the moon almost full.

I went out to my spot, in the hills, tonight. My tracks were the first human tracks on fresh fallen snow, but not the first tracks. A highway frequented by rabbits, coyotes, deer, birds was laid before me. It was silent tonight, but I knew I was not alone up in those hills. The moonlight revealed all those tracks, a dizzying network of them.

The winter solstice is the anniversary of from the gap. I didn’t even think about it when I wrote The Great White Winter, didn’t really pay attention to what the date was. But now, two years to the day, it seems weighted with significance.

In the natural world, the one that is not governed by the clocks and calendars of humankind, the winter solstice is the eve of the new year. It is the shortest day (here, in the northern hemisphere), the longest night. It is the beginning of winter. It is a time when old things die and new things incubate and wait to grow.

Today is a day to think about the new year ahead, and what should be let go and what should be nurtured to grow. What should be left behind and what should be run toward. It is a time to take stock of what’s come before and plan for what’s to come. It’s a time in-between.

I think about how far I’ve come in the two years since I started writing in this space. I think about how I felt two years ago, because I remember it well. And I think about how I felt one year ago. And it seems like no time has passed, and like all time has passed. I’m not the same person I was and yet I’m more myself than I’ve ever been before.

I think about all the places I’ve been, how far I’ve travelled. I think about where I want to go next, of all the places not yet seen. And it frightens me a little, because those places are far away and I so hate leaving here. But I must, as I have before. Must go to come back.

But for now, there is no going, no leaving. There is just the stillness, of my mind, of my heart. There is just the quiet, the strength of the moon and stars and the lay of the land beneath my feet. Right now there is no need to move. I can stand still, for just a moment, as the sun stands still.