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.
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.
Sylvan Valley Regional Park, near St. Victor. September 27, 2015.
Coulee at Sylvan Valley Regional Park, near St. Victor. September 27, 2015.
A view of Stink Lake. R.M. of the Gap. September 27, 2015.
Bulrushes/Cattails at dusk. Between Brooking and Ceylon, R.M. of the Gap. September 27, 2015.
Sun sets over the slough. Between Brooking and Ceylon, R.M. of the Gap. September 27, 2015.
Willow Bunch Elevator. September 27, 2015.
Fenceposts near Willow Bunch. September 27, 2015.
Foliage of the Wood Mountain Uplands, near Willow Bunch. September 27, 2015.
Abandoned homestead near the West Farm, R.M. of the Gap. September 27, 2015.
Coulee just south of Willow Bunch. September 27, 2015.
Coulees near the St. Victor Petroglyphs. September 27, 2015.