Category Archives: Visual Stimulation

A Particular Shade of Mauve

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.

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Kristin Catherwood. June 26, 2017.
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Kristin Catherwood. June 26, 2017.
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Kristin Catherwood. June 26, 2017.

 

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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Why Didn’t I?

This past summer I drove halfway around the world. I never left the prairies, but still, the amount of road I covered would stretch halfway ’round this earth, if one cared to measure miles in that way. The road still stretches out before me, but now there is some time to slow down, to stay put, to reflect, to remember. To ask myself questions,

Like,

Why didn’t I take that one back road, that one somewhere out west, down south, near the line, the one that had that old house, that old barn, that abandoned homestead? There’s so many roads like this, so many abandoned homesteads, I’ve photographed lots already, I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

Why didn’t I stop that one time, that time I really wanted to when the sun was setting behind me and bathing everything in a coppery light, casting my hair into shades of flame in the rearview mirror, a light so dense I could feel it? How many sunsets do I need to take pictures of? I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

Why didn’t I stop near that slough, the one that was full of pelicans gracefully and serenely bobbing amongst the cattails, brilliantly white? There’ll be more pelicans to see, they’re kind of far away anyway and besides, I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

How many back roads did I take? How many times did I stop to take photos, to sit on the hood and just gaze all around me, how many times did I roll the windows all the way down so the heat and the dust could come in and cover me over? How many times was I on some abandoned highway and felt so much at home that I believed I could live there, at 100 kilometres per hour, forever? How much did I relish every moment of it, even when my eyes were gritty and my shoulders ached? How many times did I arrive at my destination breathless just in the nick-of-time or even a little bit late because I just had to stop to look at that church, to drive through that decaying village, to try to capture the brilliance of the springy green grass? How often did I speak aloud my wonder at the all-encompassing beauty of the hills, how many times did I express my love for every cow, rabbit and antelope that I whizzed past? How much more could I have seen, stopped for, photographed, marveled at?

And yet, why didn’t I do more?

Stink Lake House

Shadows Lengthen

As the season changes, so too does the light. Shadows lengthen. It’s hard to know if the autumn foliage of the prairies is really THAT brilliant, or if it just seems that way because of how the sun sits in the sky, slanting at just the right angle to pick out every hue. But of course, the light and the leaves must conspire. Nature is full of such beautiful conspiracies.

This is what a perfect autumn day looks like in the Deep South. It just so happened to be the day of a total lunar eclipse, when the entire moon is obscured by the shadow of the earth. Shadows and more shadows. But there can only be shadows when there’s light. And we have the best light anywhere.

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.

Change of Season

– George Santayana

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.