Every spring the runoff flows down a slight decline to fill the dugout. It was engineered that way about fifty years ago – a very simple sort of engineering, but an alteration to the natural landscape so that the farm could have water for human and livestock.
So although the flow of the spring runoff past our trees (planted, not native, and thus another imposition on the natural landscape, but that’s another story) is man-made, it seems natural, and it works in tandem with nature’s natural ways. The water flows downhill and collects in a basin – in this case, a deep hole that was dug out of the earth – hence the name, dugout. Simple. Vital.
Runoff time is an exciting event in the year, when winter’s grip finally loosens and the pent up accumulation of a few months’ worth of precipitation with it. Some years the flow is too much, risking flooding the yard. Other years, when there’s not a lot of snow, the flow is minimal, just enough to fill the dugout. This year it’s about normal in my estimation.
Today was colder than the last few have been, and so the water that had started running froze up, its movement arrested. Like time standing still.
One of the reasons I even noticed this is because I’m out at the farm for the time-being, keeping my dad company and waiting out a pandemic. Normal work obligations and hustle bustle have ceased, as they have for much of the western world. Our movement has been arrested. Only what is essential continues to operate.
And because of it, I have the time to wander around the farm the way I did when I was a young girl, watching spring’s unfolding, noticing things, being present. Observing man-made engineering slow to a halt at Nature’s whim.
March and April were miserable, but thankfully we got that snow, otherwise things would be looking pretty desperate around here in this thirsty land. The winds and heat of the past couple days made quick work of any standing water. I’ve been monitoring the runoff up at my place. The part of the road that the spring runs underneath was washed out just a few days ago, a puddle almost halfway up my calves just the other day. Then I had to leave for a couple days for work on the road – the drying days of wind and sun. So last night, with the nearly full moon high in the sky, I decided to drive up there to see what was what. With the bright moon and my headlights I could see, as I made my ponderous, bumping way up the rough track, that the deep puddles were completely dried up. But when I cut the engine and stepped out into the howling night, even above the wind I could hear the sweet, vitalising sound of the spring, still running.
Its modest, energetic course glistened in the moonlight as it ran down the hillside, burrowing deep into its own channel before being diverted by a man-made culvert under the road to spread itself into the hay meadow on the other side. The place where the grass is green and lush all summer long, even when the hills around have dried up to golden brown. At some point, probably fairly soon the way the weather is going, the spring will slow to a bare trickle. It will not run anymore, unless we get a good shot of rain. But it’s there, giving itself away by that profuse growth of grass. Giving life.
I held my hand to its silvery moonlit water. It flowed busily and coolly, indifferent to me. There’s many, many things I love about my place, the Sidehill, but of all of them, I think it’s the spring I love most.
In the Sun – Earth – Moon system, the Moon represents the container which makes ordinary life on Earth possible, keeps its rhythms going. But both Earth and Moon are subordinate to the life-giving Sun; must turn towards it, honour it. Without the Sun, neither Moon nor Earth could exist. There could be no life, in the terms in which we understand it.
– Anne Whitaker, “The Moon’s Nodes in Action”
Joni Mitchell called us, prairie folk, “sky oriented.” How could we not be, when the sky is everywhere, everything, always?
I am perhaps a bit more consciously sky oriented than most – a longtime fan of the intricate movements of celestial bodies, adherent to the phases of the moon, natural devotee of eclipses.
So of course I knew about the total solar eclipse set for August 2017, where the totality would be visible across a great swathe of the United States. I had vague plans to make the trip somewhere south to see it. But 2017 turned out to be an exceptionally eventful year for me. Time passed, my schedule filled up, my mind was occupied with other things, and those plans just slipped away, though not without regret.
Then, a mere three days before the eclipse, Annie Dillard’s 35 old essay, “Total Eclipse” cropped up somewhere in my Internet meanderings. The essay in its entirety is a gorgeous thing, but somewhere around this passage:
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
my mind was made up. I was going to see the eclipse, one way or another.
It felt important to go, to just do it, even though I had no time to plan properly, even though I didn’t really have the time to spare to drive nine hundred and some kilometres to the closest site of totality (somewhere around Douglas, Wyoming). And who on earth would be able to drop everything and go with me in no time at all, to be away on a Monday morning, which was when the eclipse was going to be?
I don’t mind long road trips on my own – you could almost say that’s what I do for a living. But planning a 2000 kilometre trip in less than two days was a little much, even for me. And as much as I love solitary experiences (quick note – the “sol” in “solitary” is derived from the Latin word sol – sun), some things are just better with company. So I started calling around. There was lots of interest, but no commitment. Then my friend Eve suggested our mutual friend, Kathryn, who I hadn’t seen for ages since she’s been busy living all over the world, and was in fact set to move to Winnipeg to start graduate school just four days after the eclipse. Knowing this, I hesitated to even ask, but I did anyway. She, a Virgo like me, thought it over quickly, mercurially, creating an instant pros and cons list – the biggest con being that pesky time thing. But then she came back with: “fuck it, let’s do it.” That had been my exact thought partway through Dillard’s essay, and is also my general approach to life. A bosom friend, to be sure.
Kathryn met me in Ceylon on Sunday the 20th of August at about noon. She had brought her mom’s fresh baked muffins, sundry other foodstuffs, an 8-person tent, a one person camp stove, and a pack of CDs (which we never listened to because we talked the entire 20+ hours of driving time). I had brought a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, (I had been prepared to sleep in cheap motels and eat McDonald’s the whole time, but Kathryn is, as I mentioned earlier, a Virgo, and a better prepared one than me, so camping it was). We both had our passports. I had managed to scrounge up some dusty old acetylene goggles from the shop at the farm which, Google told me, should protect our eyes from permanent damage. We weren’t sure, due to the last minute-ness of the trip, if we’d manage to get our hands on proper eclipse viewing glasses. Both of us were worried about sight damage – Kathryn especially as she was about to embark on her studies in landscape architecture and needed to be able to draw.
As I write this, I realise I am going into exceptional detail. I didn’t intend this, in fact wanted to avoid it and simply focus on the event itself. But, like Dillard, I find myself wanting/needing to express all the details of the journey and the hours and minutes leading up to the momentous occasion. But, for the sake of brevity, I will restrain myself from describing the whole story – but trust that there is a story. Every hour seemed suspended in time – full to the brim with our conversation, the events – crossing the line and being scolded by border guards for undertaking such a journey, sure to be caught up in huge crowds as we were. Crossing the legendary Missouri River and stopping on the highway to take photos of it. Driving through the hot, dusky Montana evening. Passing a sleepless night in the 8-person tent after laboriously setting it up and eating a dinner of pesto pasta with white wine, cooked over a tiny cookstove. Taking down the 8-person tent in the pre-dawn hours. Watching the sun rise in a glory of crimson and gold outside a greasy spoon diner in southeastern Montana knowing that we would watch it disappear and return once again before sunset that evening. Driving the secondary highways into Wyoming and not running into the hordes of traffic we were warned about – my tendency to take the alternate, backroad route working in my favour once again. Finding the perfect spot to watch the eclipse – on a hill, in a grassy pasture, surrounded by twenty or so friendly and pleasant folks. We didn’t need the acetylene goggles as it turned out, for those same friendly and pleasant folks offered up extra eclipse glasses to us, unasked. The kindly and perhaps lonely sixties-ish gentleman who stood near us, but at a respectful distance, and chatted as we waited for the eclipse. I knew he wanted to share the moment with someone, and was happy to. All of us in that field shared the moment, when it finally came.
And that brings me to it, finally. The eclipse. I knew the crazy last minute drive and the sleepless night and the expense of gas and all of it would be worth it, but I didn’t know how worth it. It’s taken me nearly half a year to write about this, and now I find I still don’t quite know how to do it. Tonight is a full moon, and in a few hours, there will be a total lunar eclipse. I went out for a quick drive earlier to get some thoughts down, because I knew I needed to finally write about the solar eclipse. When I think back to that hot, August day, I get goosebumps. In the months since, every time my mind has returned to that Wyoming pasture, I get goosebumps. It’s not an understatement to say that witnessing the eclipse was life altering. Life goes on, but thoughts of that eclipse always give me pause.
And that’s what it was. A pause. A moment (2 minutes and change, to be exact) I inhabited fully and completely. No other time in my life that I can recall being so. Having driven all that way for those 2 minutes and however many seconds. Anticipating that and being so very ready to be fully present in those 2 minutes. Everything heightened in that anticipation.
It was hot, the sun shining down on the yellowing grass, a haze in the air from all the nearby coal fired power plants we had driven past on the way down. It was like home, but unlike it, too. I wanted it to be as close to home as possible, chose Douglas not only because it was closest, but also because it is the high plains. No mountains to obscure the view. The sky everywhere and everything, always.
We were looking at the sun, carefully, through our gifted eclipse glasses and saw that it had been reduced to a small crescent, and yet the day seemed still to be marching towards high noon. It was still hot, still glaringly bright. It wasn’t until we saw only a tiny fingernail sliver of molten light through the glasses that the world around us noticeably changed. Without the glasses on, it would be hard to notice that an eclipse was underway.
Imperceptibly at first, and then gradually, and then quite obviously, the sky darkened. But before that, the shadows changed. Strange shadows cast across the hills on a cloudless day. The air cooled, suddenly. We put on our jackets – unthinkable a mere moment earlier. The chattering crowd hushed a bit as we all observed these changes in our environment. Knowing they were coming did not make them any less odd. The colour of the grass transformed from golden to silver. And then, beautifully, a bird’s song rang out. This was what I had read about, had hoped for. That confused birds respond to the change in light by singing their evensongs. Since we were in an open field, no tree in sight, I had accepted that we would probably not get to witness that eclipse phenomenon. But somewhere hidden, a grassland bird sang. A lump rose to my throat at the sound, and does again now at the memory. I wish I could recognise bird calls better so I could say what bird it was, but all I know is that it was a prairie bird, one whose call I knew.
And then the shadows deepened and the sky darkened into a colour Dillard called cobalt blue, and I can find no other description to improve upon hers. It was dusk all around the horizon, that gorgeous prairie horizon that always defines our existence, but had never been seen like this in my years of gazing at it. And of course above us, the sun had become that corona we are familiar with from photographs of total solar eclipses. A stunning sight, yes. But sight was not the only sense engaged. The singing bird had hushed. People gasped and cried out. Goosebumps rose from the sudden drop in temperature. And also, they rose from something else. Another, usually hidden sense suddenly engaged. The one that made the ancients believe that eclipses were portents of momentous events. The one that made the bird sing an evensong in the middle of the day and then go silent just shy of noon. The one that makes me believe in something more.
I was filming the eclipse, so I made a quick, jerky swivel with the camera to take in the scene, but very aware of the 2 minutes ticking away, I didn’t spend any longer than necessary. I wanted to just be. Observe. Feel. I looked at Kathryn and I could see that tears stood out in her eyes, as they did in mine. There were no words that I can remember exchanging, or even thinking. Except, perhaps, “glorious.” But I may have tacked that on afterwards, in the memory of the thing. In the moment itself, I was merely a being witnessing something extraordinary. The moon and the sun together in the sky, bringing dark to the middle of the day. I was so fervently glad I had come.
Then, so soon, the light came back. A joyous moment, that. The sun returns. And yet, a pang of regret that the otherworldly moment had ended already. A strange longing for that surreal midday darkness, the promise it had contained – the promise of something more.
Kathryn and I both felt absolutely, physically awful the moment we got back into my vehicle after packing everything up. The exhilaration was still there, but so too was nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness, to the point where I had to pull over for a moment and lay my head on the steering wheel. We’re both Virgos, so we started to worry, irrationally, that something awful had happened. We were just as susceptible as the ancients to this sort of thinking. But after we had just witnessed something so strange, so mystical, so overwhelmingly beautiful, and so beyond our earthly control, in that moment it seemed entirely possible that the world had been altered in some way.
Later, over ice cream cones at a McDonald’s in Gilette, Wyoming, we could laugh at ourselves. Realized that we had slept so little the night before, had been running on adrenaline and excitement, had been driving so many hours, not to mention had driven up into sudden elevation on the high plains of Wyoming. Altitude can do strange things to a person. But, too, there was the eclipse. The scientific reality of why it happens – the moon moving at astonishing speed to cover the sun and then move on again, exposing us momentarily to the dizzying velocity with which the earth rotates on its axis. And then there was the actual experience of being there and seeing day turn to night in an instant. How strange and unfeeling we would be if that hadn’t physically impacted us.
There was a story to getting home, too. A diversion to sight-see at Devil’s Tower, a quick nap in the grass there, a desperation to get home before midnight, the inability to quite get there, the overnight in a modest Montana motel. The endless conversations. The bond that Kathryn and I will always, always share as a result of this experience. Her emphatic statement that it had been “worth every mile.”
Almost 2500 words and I know I have not managed to find the right ones in the right order to even remotely describe the total solar eclipse. And the video I took that day, it too is nothing compared to the real thing. But still, it is something to see. I filmed it in real time and have presented it as such, no fancy effects or sped up bits. Just what it was like. No sound, either. The light changing is what it shows. And at its most basic, that’s what an eclipse is. The light changing in a way outside the usual pattern of things. I’ve written often about chasing the light – this time I chased after a lack of it. But of course, even in the darkest moment of the total eclipse, the light was still there. Obscured for a brief moment to remind us of its total necessity. The sun and the moon together. Us on earth at their mercy. And within their grace.
What is it about cows, anyway?
Something about their lumbering grace
Their propensity for grazing on the
side of hills, or just outside the fence.
Their limpid curiosity, or the hint of feistiness displayed
in a bit of a buck and a running start
Another patch of grass. The watering hole.
Is it a barnyard full of pungent muck?
Is it the way their great tongues would deftly scrape up the
chop my dad laid out for them
on the flatbed trailer in wintertime?
Is it tiny calves riding in the
passenger seat to the vet in Ogema,
with me in the middle?
Is it old Bossy and Lulabelle (a hard milker),
cows I never knew, but they lived on the farm before I did,
they called the same view home and
they were acquainted with my dad
long before I was ever thought of,
and I feel like I know them personally?
Their names live on at the farm, even with the barn long since burned down.
Their spirits must be here too, still.
Is it that dairy barn in northern Iceland? Full of those Viking cows all
jostling together in an overwhelming mix of manure,
clattering hooves,bellows, and improbably, gallons and gallons of
rich, white milk that made the best
butter and cheese I’ve ever tasted?
Is it that time I drove into Alberta on the back roads,
nothing but me, the open graze land, the cattle, and the road?
Was it that time I was rambling (with permission) through
a badlands pasture when some skittish Black Angus steer
decided to spook and set the whole herd thundering away,
so that I’m sure I felt the ground shake?
Is it that time in rural eastern Quebec,
close to the border with New Brunswick
when traffic on the highway was halted while
some naughty runaway cattle were chased back home?
Or how about that time south of Val Marie when I had to slow
to a crawl behind about fifty head, two ranchers on ATVs
and their Border Collie (who rode on the ATV)?
Is it all the times I went with Dad, sometimes just me and him,
other times Janelle and Mom crammed into the
maroon Ford pickup too, up to old Joe’s pasture
to check on the cattle, when it always seemed to be
the golden hour and we bumped our heads on the roof of the truck
as it rumbled and crawled over those southern hills?
Is it how when I was a little girl they were always there,
part of my life and the landscape as much as the sun or stars?
Is it because they were the “moos,” as Janelle called them,
and you could hear them day and night
going about their lives, just out there in the barnyard
(still called that even though the barn was 15 years burned?)
Is it that vague memory I have of a golden morning years ago
before school when some neighbours did a roundup and the cows
went galloping past the farm, down the road and in the ditches,
urged on by horses and riders wearing cowboy hats?
(that really happened, didn’t it? Or was it a dream?)
Is it Charlie, the black and white Holstein,
or Friendly, the good-tempered Charolais,
or perhaps all those curly forelocked red-coated Herefords,
or the calves I named after my cousins,
that made up our moteley herd?
I don’t know what it is about cows, but there’s just something, isn’t there?
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.
time poet/to put aside what you came to/leaving all else/behind
Andrew Suknaski, “Western Prayer,” Wood Mountain Poems
You would have been 75 today. Seventy-five revolutions around the sun, it should be, but you stopped just short of 70.
It was no surprise to discover your solar return to be at high summer when the sun is at its full strength here in these southern hills, in this western land, when it seems fit to swallow the land whole. More than anything else it’s the sun that makes this place what it is, grows us into who we are, the sun that scorches away all that is unnecessary, the sun that both gives and takes.
I cast your chart, Andy. That’s something I do for people who matter to me, both theliving and dead. A child of the sun but also a son of Neptune. Fire and water. An uneasy, smouldering combination, two elements at odds but which come together in their mutual obeisance at the altar of emotion. Inwardly watery, outwardly spitting sparks – am I right to deconstruct your character so? Did you ever feel like your inner self was drowning, Andy? Even as your words scorched pages with their searing honesty. Another thing common to water and fire – the ability to purge, cleanse, purify. Burn down to the bone and wash away all trace of any artifice. Getting at the truth, even if it burns you alive, or drowns you from the inside.
It was hot today, Andy. The sun was everything and everywhere until it finally dropped down into the horizon in a glory of magenta. Even it seemed glad to be gone, to relinquish itself to the brief respite of a hot and windy summer night. We know now that the sun never really leaves, that it’s always shining somewhere. But the ancients did not know that; what they knew was that the sun departed before the night. It gave way to the wisdom of the moon and stars. It rested as we mortals rest.
And they knew, too, that the sun returns every year to the same places and shines in the same kind of way and imbues those born at that particular time with a certain set of traits, predilections, capacities, potentials. Of course you were born when you were, with the sun like it always is on July 30th in this particular intersection of latitude and longitude. Son of the sun, borne of the highest heat and driest dry, a true child of this place.
As the sun rests at night, so do I hope you rest now.
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.
When I called Archie to ask directions to his ranch, they were a bit vague. I was coming from the south, Big Beaver way, I explained. “Oh yes, well take the road up the hill there and then you’ll go through the coulee, and you’ll pass the place that used to be Clarks’, and then take the north-south road for four miles and then take the first east-west road.”
Archie is 95, so you could attribute the ambiguity of these directions to a failing mind. But not so. Archie is sharp as a tack, and as he described the way to his ranch in his careful way, I was picturing the roads in my mind. It’s an area I know pretty well, well enough that I knew to simply keep heading in a northeasterly direction, and somehow, I’d make it.
And I did, without a single wrong turn. Archie’s directions were borne out of a lifetime of living in the same place. And my ability to follow them was based in my short lifetime of getting to know rural southern Saskatchewan – understanding how it’s laid out, patterns of road maintenance, and perhaps a tiny bit of instinctual wisdom. Local directions are often vague like the ones Archie gave me, sometimes almost incomprehensible to a stranger. Last week, when traveling to a northern town, I was told how to get to the venue where I was hosting a workshop: “it’s down where the old hospital used to be.” The old hospital no longer exists in tangible form, and I had never been to this town before. Those directions were almost useless to me. But to the person giving them, the map composed of memory made absolute sense. The place just is where it is.
In rural Saskatchewan, there’s almost no use talking about kilometers. Metric measurements just don’t fit on a landscape that was laid out on the old imperial system. But even so, measuring miles still somehow doesn’t take the amount of time it’s supposed to. Four miles on a straight paved road is not the same as four miles on a twisty-turny up-and-down gravel road. You can set your odometer all you like, but somehow it doesn’t always seem to turn out. As for GPS coordinates – you can give them a try, but I wouldn’t rely on them. It’s almost as if these places move, shift themselves in different types of weather, or sidle back and forth in tune with the rotation of the earth. They just don’t want to seem to line up with maps and measurements -at least not precise ones. Or so it seems to me. I’d rather rely on directions of the type Archie gave. I trust them more.
A place is where it is, and it takes as long as it takes to get there.
Growing up, I knew folk from my community who claimed to be a relation of the infamous Jesse James. I’ve talked to more than one landowner who claims that Sitting Bull and his followers “rode right through the yard” though at the time, it wasn’t a yard yet. The Big Muddy Valley claims the #1 stop on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Outlaw Trail.
All of these claims are…just that. Claims. Whether historically true or not, they conjure evocative images. Why do so many communities want to be affiliated with the tragic, political mess that was the Sitting Bull saga? Why would anyone claim kinship with a notorious criminal? Why are people proud to speak of the Big Muddy’s reputation as a playground for horse and cattle thieves?
In the Old World, there were many folk ballads concerning Robin Hood, the outlaw of Sherwood Forest who famously stole from the rich to give to the poor. In the West, similar ballads about Jesse James emerged, though there was no real evidence he ever held up trains out of any sense of philanthropy. The money he distributed to his followers was to secure loyalty. And yet, the idea of James as a folk hero endures. Sitting Bull is, depending on who you talk to, another folk hero, the man who defeated Custer and defied the American government by seeking refuge in Canada. On our side of the Medicine Line, we grasp onto the Sitting Bull story, make much of the few years he spent in Canada. Certainly, it was a historically significant event. But it is much more significant in our local folklore. Sitting Bull’s story occupies a much larger space in our imaginations and collective memory than in any history textbook.
The cowboy outlaws of the deserts and plains of western North America have been romanticized in film, song, poetry, and in the collective imagination, including here in southern Saskatchewan. Notorious outlaws like Dutch Henry, Sam Kelly, the Pigeon-Toed Kid, and others were known for rustling cattle and horses on the Canadian side of the Line, driving them down to be sold in Montana, then turning around and herding them back up across the Line to be sold again on this side. They had a few tricks to help evade capture, but in the end they all met ignominious ends – either winding up dead somewhere, in jail, or simply fading into obscurity. Their hijinks only lasted a few years, but the stories we tell about them are still going strong.
We venerate the underdog, the rascal, the ones who thumb their noses at the status quo, for they are living out our secret desires to throw off the shackles of whatever our particular life has us chained to – responsibility, poverty, unrequited love, unrealized potential.
The West is a land of myth and legend. Its landscape lends itself to these images – to people who live on the fringes, people who are as wild as the geography itself. I can’t say I wouldn’t want to be a relation to Jesse James myself.