Tag Archives: landscape

These Southern Hills

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.

Stink Lake

“The sensually descriptive folk names which people attach to the flora, fauna, and topographical features of a place provide a similar view of the local knowledge and interpretation of the physical components of that place, as do a few types of place-based narrative – like local legends and tall tales – which rely for much of their meaning on the nature of their physical setting. Such lore goes beyond cartographic symbols to get its hands dirty among the things that the symbols represent”

      – Kent C. Ryden, Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place*

Stink Lake

By Shawn Catherwood

  Stink Lake is what we call it. I’m sure there is a proper name for this elegant body of water. Whatever that name is, it is not of importance to me. The name we gave it is all too perfect. This so called lake has quite the distinct smell that one would not pass by without commenting on that foreign stench traveling through their nostrils. Don’t be thrown off, this lake is as beautiful as it gets this close to home.

Just a meagre three miles from the place I call home, I turn my steering wheel and smoothly slide along the gravel as I turn onto the goat trail that will take me to the majestic Stink Lake. The koisha weeds scrape the bottom of the vehicle like sand paper. I try not to focus my attention to the chilling century old house alongside the trail, as the glassless windows seem to be watching me trespass into this pocket of the world.

I trek a few hundred yards down to the sand where I have arrived just in time for the mysterious ball of fire in the sky to recede below the horizon. I sit there in silence, taking everything in. The rolling hills of the gap in which a glacier passed through millions of years ago are in the background, the golden stubble of a recent wheat field in front. The stench of the lake hangs in the air like fog. I’m not fazed by it because the glare of the sunset on the lake eliminates my other four senses. Motionless, I sit as I take in this beauty. It is now dusk and if I want to escape this foreign corner of the province I need to leave right now before it is too dark. Today there is no full moon to guide me, I’ll be trapped. So I leave, “til’ next time Stink lake”.

Nothing compares to the beauty of this body of water crevassed between fields and hills. It’s a place of complete stillness, it is surreal. To release all emotions and feel nothing but relief and happiness. Stink Lake is as real of a place as there is. A place I can call mine.

There’s nothing I can add to that beautiful piece of writing to describe Stink Lake. It’s beautiful not only because my usually taciturn, practical little brother wrote it – someone who does not enjoy writing or consider himself talented at it (though I would beg to differ), but also it is beautiful because of how strongly centred in place it is. Shawn wrote this for a Grade Twelve English assignment last fall that required students to write about one of their favourite places. We folklorists talk a lot about space and place because we’ve figured out that place is absolutely essential to a community’s sense of identity, as well as to individuals’ sense of who they are. Often we go through our lives without really thinking about what the place we live in means. We absorb it into us, so that it becomes part of us, but we don’t often talk about it except in practical terms.

Stink Lake, as my brother wrote, is just three miles from our farm. It has always held a special place in my imagination. It’s an alkaline lake – hence the stink. There are times, in dry years, when it is empty of water. The last few years have been wet, so it’s full, and it truly is an impressively large body of water in this dry region. During the fall migration, it becomes a centre of bird activity. The cacophony of all the geese, cranes, and other migrators travels over its waters and right into our farm yard. I can hear it at night when I’m falling asleep. During the spring and summer, a squadron of pelicans can usually be found on the lake’s island, which we call Pelican Island, of course.

When I was about eleven, I wrote a dramatic murder mystery story in which the unfortunate victim’s corpse was dumped in Stink Lake. My relatively rare excursions to the shores of Stink Lake are exciting because there are always interesting birds and animals to see, and as my brother captured so well in his essay, there’s just something about the place that stimulates the imagination. It’s not very easy to get to. The stink is not all that strong these days, since the water is so high. In low water years, it smells sulfurous, rotten eggy. I found out recently that the body of water is properly named Cockburn Lake, probably after an early homesteader or a surveyor. But that name evokes nothing. This body of water is known simply as Stink Lake by everyone in the area because, as my brother wrote, “it is as real of a place as there is.”

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Stink Lake. Photo: September 14, 2013. Kristin Catherwood.

*Kent C. Ryden. 1993. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 63.

A Harangue

ha·rangue [huhrang] noun.  1. a scolding or a long or intense verbal attack; diatribe. 2.a long, passionate, and vehement speech, especially one delivered before a public gathering. 3.any long, pompous speech or writing of a tediously hortatory or didactic nature; sermonizing lecture or discourse.

– dictionary.reference.com

If you want to get my blood boiling, say something like, “Saskatchewan is boring and flat” in my presence. Today a visitor to the museum where I work said, in response to my question about his ride on the Southern Prairie Railway, “It was all right. There’s not much for scenery in Saskatchewan.” If I bit my tongue every time I heard a phrase like that, I’d be tongueless.

What I wanted to say to the gentleman was, “First of all, sir, please take of your sunglasses; you’re inside now. Also I want you to look me square in the eye when you utter such a flagrantry disrespectul and ignorant remark. Secondly, you’re completely wrong, and here’s why.”

ImageA typical example of Saskatchewan’s flat landscape. September 13, 2013. Kristin Catherwood.


But I didn’t want to get fired. So instead, I said calmly, “Wow, you must not get out much if that’s what you think.” He laughed until he realised I wasn’t kidding, then said, “I guess you have to learn how to see the beauty here.” It’s a fair point, I suppose. To the uninitiated, Saskatchewan might seem a little less exotic than say, the Rocky Mountains. My step grandmother, who came from England, told me that it took her awhile to see the beauty of the prairies, but now she can’t imagine living anywhere else. A lot of people’s experiences of Saskatchewan are limited to cruising along the abysmal Trans Canada highway which cuts jaggedly (though sensibly)  across the flattest part of the province. Those who have ever landed at Regina’s airport can attest to the absolute flatness of the Regina Plains, which might seem “boring” or “ugly” if your aesthetic sensibilities require a beauty that shouts loudly in your face, mountain style, rather than murmuring softly, prairie style.

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         Nothing to see here, folks. Please move along to a place where the grass is greener.  June 7, 2014. Kristin Catherwood.


It turns out this man actually grew up in southwestern Saskatchewan, one of the most beautiful regions of the province, in my opinion, but has since located to the more standardly accepted  picturesqueness of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. I’d be the last person to deny the awesome beauty of BC’s mountainous landscape. However, I still don’t think it compares to the prairie. And to know that he had grown up on the prairie and never learned to love its beauty before jumping ship eliminated any slack I would have cut him.

I was so riled up by this encounter (though I should be used to them by now), that I mentioned it to my boss. She grimaced and said, “you know, we used to be called “the gap” – the space between Manitoba and Alberta.” I’ve heard similar comments, but never the exact terminology of Saskatchewan being known as the “gap” province. Hm, another reason why this blog is called From the Gap, perhaps? We in Saskatchewan of course have our own ideas about our position in relation to our neighbouring provinces. A popular phrase is: “Alberta Blows,  Manitoba Sucks,” ostensibly in reference to the prevailing winds, but obviously a dig at the (perceived) shortcomings of our prairie sibling provinces.

There is that old phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Perhaps instead of vigorously arguing why my province is so spectacular, I should just smile in sympathy at people who utter ignorant statements about Saskatchewan’s apparent lack of aesthetic qualities. After all, it must be a pitiable existence to have so little poetry in the soul that one is oblivious to the beauty of the prairie. I should let such people go merrily on their way, content that I know a secret they do not. Their definition of “gap” is different from mine – all the more tragedy for them.

 

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These Canadian geese understand the value of a gap. May 25, 2014. Kristin Catherwood.

Beating the Bounds

 

“Early settlers often measured the boundaries of their homestead by tying a rag around their buggy wheel. By measuring the wheel, it was easy to figure out the number of revolutions it should make in one half mile or a mile. All one had to do, then, was concentrate on counting.”

Memories of Ogema and District Pioneers, “Tales of Old Timers,” 43.

In medieval Europe there was a tradition of beating the bounds on Ascension Day or sometime during Rogationtide (the three days leading up to Ascension Day). Rogationtide, derived from the Latin rogare, to ask, was an official Church sanctioned observance on the calendar. It was a time to pray for God’s blessing on the crops and the prevention of natural disasters like plague and drought. Processions were held throughout the parish, and beating the bounds was part of this.

Though it was a religious event in the Middle Ages, the practice of beating the bounds could be far older. Some scholars speculate it was derived from the Roman festival Terminalia, with others claiming pre-Roman “Celtic” origins for the practice. Whatever its origins, it is clearly folkloric in nature. Boundaries have been important for as long as humans have claimed certain spaces and places as their own. In the centuries and millennia before ordnance maps and road signs, boundaries existed in folk memory only. One had to remember that this side of the river belonged to us, but that side of the river did not. This grove is ours, that hill is theirs. During the beating of the bounds, young men sometimes had their heads bashed against rocks or trees, or had to wade across streams so they would have a physical memory of the boundary. People marked the boundary spots by flailing them with willow wands or switches of hazelwood. Some places in England still carry on this tradition, though with less bashing in of heads.

As far as I know, no similar tradition exists in Saskatchewan. However, yesterday was Ascension Day, and if there is a better way to spend a Thursday evening than perambulating a quarter section, I don’t know it. And so I beat the bounds of my family’s original homestead quarter. There was no beating or bashing of anything, just the occasional stamping of feet from frustration at  the hordes of mosquitoes feasting on my flesh. But it was a good exercise, in more ways than one. Each quarter section being a 1/2 mile long, I walked two miles over freshly seeded ground. And it was an exercise in observation. Why did my great great grandfather choose this particular piece of land?

ImageThe homestead, looking east.

He was one of the first in the Gap country to claim a homestead, so he had the pick of the land. It had not been surveyed yet. According to family history, Grandpa Tom and his brother Jim “travelled over a lot of land and decided on the land we now have.” It is not written why they chose it. As I ambled about last evening, I tried to figure out why they might have done so. It’s relatively flat. The soil is heavy, lots of clay. Perhaps the native prairie grass grew more lushly there. There is a draw, a shallow drainage passage that funnels water from the spring runoff or heavy rains. Water is scarce in these parts, so perhaps this draw drew them in? However, there is a creek just a mile or so to the south. Why not homestead there, where the water was more abundant? When I got home, I asked my dad why they had chosen this particular land. He said something about the grass growing thicker there, and about the “pothole slough” which provided a water source. I noticed this tiny body of water, more a puddle than anything, but did not think it was significant enough to photograph. Apparently I would not have been a very good land prospector.

ImageThe draw winds its serpentine course. Though it doesn’t look like much, it’s a verdant paradise for insects, birds, rodents and reptiles, just as important a river valley as the Tigris or the Euphrates. So life-giving is this little passage for water, it even permitted the growth of a solitary tree.

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The lush vegetation produced by one modest draw: a profusion of cattails and a lone Manitoba Maple.

For whatever reasons they chose it, this quarter section (160 acres) became their new home. To prove it up, they had to pay a $10 registry fee and then they had three years to break ten acres of land a year, build a house and live on the homestead for six months each year. The first house was a “soddie.” After the three years, if the homestead had been successfully “proven up,” one could file for a pre-emption, the adjoining quarter section, at the bargain basement rate of $4 an acre. This was done, and by 1909 they had a half-section of land, 360 acres. In those days, that was something.

During my walk, I came across some fragments of the past: two were probably homestead relics, the other is far older. There was a horseshoe, rusted and bent out of all proportion. It’s a big one, so perhaps it came from a draft horse, thrown while pulling a plough or a hay rake. But my great great-grandfather Thomas had a blacksmith shop on the homestead when they first started out and my great great – grandfather Ernest Freeman who homesteaded a mile south was a blacksmith also; perhaps it was discarded from one of those smithies. I also found, not far from the shoe, some kind of part from farm machinery. There is a bit of writing on it; all that I could make out was “lbs” and “Canada.” Not much help. It’s very heavy, very rusty, but still in okay shape. I have no idea what it could be. When I asked my dad, he suggested some kind of gear from a threshing machine, the giants that were used before combines. In that case, it could be 90-100 years old. The last thing I found was a natural feature, here long before iron came to the prairies. It’s a mottled stone, not exactly an omar, but interesting nonetheless. It was probably caused by something glacial. just like the Gap country itself.

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Remnants of the past.

As for the boundary of the land itself, it was pretty clear, as are most land boundaries in Saskatchewan. The land was very precisely parcelled up by surveyors. I knew that after a half mile, this quarter section would end, and the next begin. It was also obvious by the change in the field; their field was stubble, ours was not. Also, at the end, there are little triangles of land where the farm machinery has had to cut corners to make the turn. This is a good Saskatchewan indicator of a land boundary, at least boundaries of farmland.

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Finding the boundary.

After beating the bounds of my family’s original homestead land, I have a little better understanding of why they chose it, though their reasons are lost to time. Whatever compelled or impelled my great great-grandfather to stake a claim on that particular piece of land, we still call it our own, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m here now.