Category Archives: Reflections

Away and Back

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus…

                         – T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

The Going

It is in airplanes that I have had some of the most profound moments of my life. Up in the ether, suspended in time and space and yet hurtling through it, it is like I barely exist. The ultimate in-between, far removed from the groundedness of my usual humanity. Lost hours, breathing false air, merely existing in the gap between Heaven and Earth. It is an uneasy place to be. And yet in this strangeness I have had moments of intense clarity. When we burst through the clouds and seem to almost touch the sun, so pure is its light that tears rise unbidden. It is a feeling almost of immortality, as if humanity has been left far below and only the soul resides up here. Inevitably, a baby begins to fuss at these moments and my irritation reminds me I am only too human. Any shudders, any bits of turbulence throw my mortality into sharp focus – I am at the mercy of things I cannot control. Up here in this in-between space, a vulnerable vessel of blood and bone, dependent upon the whims of mechanics and human hands in a mysterious cockpit and the will of the gods, up here untethered in this space and yet firmly buckled in by order of the seatbelt sign, my soul seems to find its way.

The Waiting

Pearson International Airport, as far from the prairies as one can get, is as familiar to me as the streets of an oft-visited city. I drink a pot of tea, which I will regret once I am airborne, and I think, and suddenly, I write.

Like lovers need absence to sustain their love longtermm, sometimes/always my relationship to my home land is reinvigorated by sojourns abroad. In my everyday life, I never forget my love of the land, but I can take its grandeur for granted, I can become complacent in my worship of it. Many moons have passed (I’ve watched them all) since I have seriously written anything. Once my thesis was wrested from me, I felt depleted totally. I had many thoughts, many ideas, but felt no complusion, from within or from without, to write anything beyond what was required of me.

Then I packed my bags and got on a plane and within hours of leaving the prairies behind, letting the plains fall away, after just a few pages of a stimulating book (The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane), I felt it. The urge. My hand, out-of-practice, could hardly keep up to my mind as I scribbled.

it is the leaving that does it, and the anticipation of the return. Saskatchewan was never so beautiful, never so romantic, as it was in m imagination during the long months of self-imposed exile in Newfoundland. And here I am, on my way back to the Atlantic coast, and suddenly I can write again.

The Coming Back

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

As the plane makes its final, blessed descent to the waiting prairie below, I can tell that it has not rained. There is a certain dullness to the green grass, the blocks of fields should be further advanced. I can tell by the quality of the great plumes of dust following vehicles down gravel roads. There’s a thickness to it I can see even from hundreds of feet above. It is dry. I am home.

So happy to be home, and yet already daydreaming about my next sojourn “away”, about the destinations I hope to visit. Both dreading and desperately anticipating it, I plan my next arc through the skies. For as earthy as I am, the ground cannot hold me.

And so I go and go again and always return, never the same as when I left. But once returned, it is like I get to rediscover this place all over again. Even as the other place still clings to my skin, still sits prominently in my memory, the prairie wind starts to slough it away. Its insistence reminds me that this is where I belong, that I go away only so that I can come back.

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

                                          – T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

Tapping

This isn't Ontario, Quebec, Vermont or Novs Scotia. This is Sasktchewan, just a few miles from Radville, to be exact. These are Manitoba maple trees.  Unlike their Sugar cousins, the ratio of syrup is 40:1 instead of 20:1. So, the return is not high. Apparently the finished product isn't quite as sweet as what you'll find in stores, but it is maple syrup nonetheless. A cottage industry in the making?
This isn’t Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, or Nova Scotia. This is Sasktchewan, just a few miles from Radville, to be exact. These are Manitoba maple trees. Unlike their Sugar cousins, the ratio of syrup is 40:1 instead of 20:1. So, the return is not high. Apparently the finished product isn’t quite as sweet as what you’ll find in the maple syrup sold in stores, but it is maple syrup nonetheless. A cottage industry in the making? March 22, 2015.

Printemps (or, The Big Puddle)

“…And yet, down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart, and the spring would come again! Oh, it would come again!” – Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

There’s a different smell to the air, a sort of sharp scent that dares winter to linger much longer.

The geese who call this place home have come home. The geese who use this place as a rest stop on the way to their homes further north are camping out.

There is muck everywhere.

On the Ides of March, before the equinox but close enough, the first hesitant croaking of a frog. It was a bit premature, but I heard it.

Skunks are on the move.

A muskrat was swimming in a slough.

I saw a raccoon resting on a bale.

It’s still light out at 7:30 in the evening.

The Big Puddle has arrived.

Spring is coming. It’s almost here.

The surest harbinger of spring there is - the Big Puddle forms in a depression in our yard after the snow melts. As children, my sister and I went through an average of four pairs of rubber boots a day. That puddle was more exciting than 1000 Barbie dolls, held more possibilities for fun than Disneyland itself. It was ourspringtime  kingdom.  March 15, 2015.
The surest harbinger of spring there is, The Big Puddle forms in a depression in our yard every spring. As children, my sister and I went through an average of four pairs of rubber boots a day playing in the puddle. That puddle was more exciting than 1000 Barbie dolls, held more possibilities for fun than Disneyland itself. It was ou rspringtime kingdom.
March 15, 2015.

Nyx

Driving home, late. Past the pumpkin turning hour. Above, the moon, just past full, sets the snow clad hills to a great blanket of shining white. To my right, shimmering banners of emerald undulate. If it weren’t for the engine and the tires whizzing over broken pavement, if I could stand still beneath them, I imagine I could hear the celestial music they dance to. Ahead, Orion’s belt, undaunted by the luna light. Cassiopeia is on her couch. The Great Bear slumbers above the aurora. Wondrous sights to behold, a magical landscape. It’s hard to believe it’s night, there’s so much light in it.

Prairie Pilgrimage: I

“I began to realize how life for all of us in the West is shaped by Nature in ways we don’t even realize, much less notice consciously.”

– Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning

I had never read anything that had captured the way I felt about the prairie until I read The Perfection of the Morning four years ago. When I read it, I thought, finally, someone who understands.

September 26, 2014.
September 26, 2014.

Sharon Butala had known and captured certain truths of life on the prairie before I was born. But until I was a grown adult and read her work, I had never been able to articulate myself what the prairie meant to me. It’s no exaggeration to say that this blog, and much of what I focus my attention on both personally and academically, would not have come into being without her influence.

I met her briefly a couple years ago. I was so nervous I could barely speak (usually not a problem I have). But it was a moment I won’t ever forget, to meet someone of such wisdom, someone who knew and understood the soul of prairie, and not only that, but could express it.

As soon as I read The Perfection of the Morning, I wanted to visit Old Man on His Back (OMB), a prairie conservation area maintained by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Sharon and her late husband Peter had donated several thousand acres of pristine prairie grassland to the NCC years agoIt`s a remote place, four hours drive from my farm, in the extreme south and west of Saskatchewan. My friend had invited me to spend the weekend at Cypress Hills on the last weekend of Septemeber. I decided to take a circuitous, non-direct route that would allow me to see bits of Saskatchewan I’d never seen before, including OMB.

I arrived in the late afternoon, just as the sun was slanting its last rays across the prairie grass. I had called ahead and the interpreter, a woman who emigrated from England in the 1960s and has called this remote place home ever since, was kind enough to stay late for me.

I only had a short time to spend there, but I still remember vividly the quiet, the stillness, and the goldenness of that late September evening. Once I left, driving west on the grid road, dust behind me as I travelled onwards toward the Cypress Hills, purple in the distance, I knew very well I would come back to this sacred place. There was something magical about the drive to Cypress Hills that evening, through land I had never seen before.  Perhaps because I have read so much of Butala’s work,  I felt as if I knew it already deep in my bones.

An Iron Country

“It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.”

– Willa Cather, O Pioneers, 139.

January, month of Janus, who had two faces, one which looked backward and one which looked forward. He was a caretaker, a guardian of doorways. January, the month that gets rid of the old year and brings in the new. Also, the month where winter truly settles in and, as dear Willa Cather wrote so beautifully, “the spirit is oppressed.” At least, it seems that way.

In Saskatchewan, winter is a trial. An endurance test. Whiteout blizzards, 40 below, winds that slash your face and frost that will bite your skin. It’s all true, sometimes. This January has been strange. For two weeks, temperatures were above 0 degrees. El Niño or climate change or just irregularity, I’m not sure. It was strange though. Especially when one simply expects January to be difficult.

Winter is a struggle for me, as it is for so many. But in Saskatchewan, it’s so much a part of who we are. In the past, winter defined life all year round. The other three seasons were spent in preparation to survive it. Even now with our furnaces and cars and well-stocked grocery stores and trips to hot destinations, winter defines us. It is so long, so dark, so drab, so dry.

Creativity can come at any time of year, but in winter mine struggles to come to the surface. Right now and for the past while, I’ve not felt like creating anything, though not because I haven’t been inspired. There were a couple of weeks early in the month where timing was sweet enough to schedule my daily commute so that I drove into the sunrise every morning and into the sunset every evening.

The sky is inspiring every season, perhaps even more so in the winter. The horizon, so obviously round here in the flatlands, was a gradient of crimson, to golden pink, to mauve and darkening into deep plum twilight in the east. I did take photographs, but due to some tragic malfunction of Mercury (he’s travelling backwards just now), my flash card erased everything from the past month.

But still, I got to drink in the beauty of winter light with my own eyes, and it did settle into my soul nicely. So yes, inspiration abounds. Especially from the words of others. In winter, my own writing recedes as I soak up the words of books, my favourite form of nourishment. I take them in and let them brew and ferment and wait. And sometimes, like today, I have a sudden impulse to write something of my own.

So no photos to document this past month of beautiful winter light. Thankfully, nothing to document the past month of struggling to see the light, to feel warm (even on those unseasonally warm days) in this iron country. But, like iron, we who live here are strong. We always get through it.

After all, is cold not just an absence of heat? Much like darkness is merely an absence of light. The sun, old Helios up in the sky, is an unfailing cure for both, and he does not stay away from Saskatchewan during the winter, even on the days with the least warmth.

Some photos from December 2013.

Longest Night

The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.

Joseph Campbell, The Journey Inward: The Power of Myth

The Winter Solstice and the December New Moon are conspiring today to create the longest, darkest night of the year.

It was a year ago to the day that I wrote the first post of this blog, The Great White Winter. As I explained in Chasing the Light, I did not know what form it would become. I simply felt impelled to write. It was a crisis moment in my life, a moment of in-betweenness. I was in a gap. And I find myself there again.

Tonight I am much more conscious than last year of what it is I am doing here. But life is still a mystery, as it always should be. I have come to another crossroads, a moment of transformation. Perhaps it is my fate to re-enact this every year at this time. Perhaps it is all humanity’s fate, it is encoded in our collective consciousness, to burrow deep inside at the darkest time of the year, bundled up, provisions laid down. It is not just our physical form that burrows, but our minds and hearts as well. We look inward to see if we can find enough light there to get us through the Longest Night.

For millenia humans have built altars to align with the light of this day. Festivals of great significance are enacted the world over at this time. My favourite aspect of these festivals is not the celebration of returning light, but the turning-upside-downness of society and the willing participation of all to observe it. In ancient Rome during the festival of Saturnalia, slaves became masters and masters became slaves. In medieval Europe, the Boy Bishops of universities and cathedrals continued this tradition. Weak became strong, small became large, powerless became powerful, and vice versa. Of course, for only a brief time. Then the world is turned right side up once more, as the sun strengthens in the sky each day, reasserting the order of normal life.

This dark time is a time of reflection, of turning inward. The past two months I have been caught up in the world outside. I had work to do, important work. I finished a giant task, I took on new ones, I found myself in situations I never could have anticipated. In the aftermath, there are painful truths to face and difficult lessons to learn. And here I find myself on the Longest Night. Life feels topsy-turvy and uncertain. Last year, I could not see the light coming. This year I am wiser. I know it will come, that there will be a bright dawn after this dark night. That things will make sense in time, that I will have come out of it stronger than before. I must trust this to see me through. In the darkness creativity incubates, waiting for the first ray of dawn to coax it forth.

Solstice Sky. December 21, 2014. The Gap.
Solstice Sky. December 21, 2014. The Gap.