Tag Archives: prairies

Where it is

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.

Jesse James and Other Scoundrels and Heroes

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.

 

avonlea-hoodoo
Avonlea Badlands, September 2014.

 

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.

Gleaning

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”
                                                                                                                             – Leviticus 23:22
Glean
1. to gather slowly and laboriously, bit by bit.

2. to gather (grain or the like) after the reapers or regular gatherers.

3.to learn, discover, or find out, usually little by little or slowly.

4. to collect or gather anything little by little or slowly.

5. to gather what is left by reapers.

All life is a gleaning, especially when you’re a Virgo.
In the Middle Ages, when all agricultural work was done by hard labour, it was the women and children’s job to go out into the fields and glean. Every grain was precious in those famine-ready times. Nowadays, giant machines can do in one day what once took weeks. But still, there are gleanings left behind. No women and children out gathering them, except for me today.
Born in an exceptional year when harvest was already done (drought), I am nevertheless borne of the harvest season and so every year on my birthday I go out to gather my own small harvest. I like to have a bit of wheat around the house, if only  for decorative and symbolic purposes. I take only a tiny amount from the field – that which stands at the fringes, or was missed by the swipe of the combine. There will be lots left for the geese when they come in their huge flocks next month. They are master gleaners. For them, like it was for medieval peasants, gleaning is a matter of survival.
For me it is nothing more than a past-time. A bit of a hobby. I’ve been fortunate to always be well fed. I work hard, yes, but not in the way the medieval peasants worked. I do not toil from dawn ’til dusk.
But even in this easy society I found myself born into, I have come to realise that all of life is work, or at least it should be. It’s a constant gleaning, a continuous methodical gathering of information, of facts, of flotsam, of flashes of insight. It is about taking the time to bend and stoop and squint and figure out what is good and what is not. To not take everything, but to leave some behind, for the geese, for the wind, for the earth to break down and absorb. For the poor and the travellers. To glean is to find out who you are and what it means to be you in this world. And to try to be the best you can be.
Wheat
On the ripe. August 12, 2015.
Gleanings on the home quarter. September 16, 2015.
Gleanings on the home quarter. September 16, 2015.

All of a Sudden, This. (Wroxton)

Driving on an unfamiliar road far from the Gap, yet still very much in Saskatchewan (though drifting close to Manitoba). Different landscape, different cultures who call it home, different cues to those cultures. A rich, gently undulating landscape. The land had a feeling of weight to it. Farms nestled in stands of natural aspen and birch. An abundance of water in creeks, sloughs, full-fledged rivers (the Swan and the Assiniboine) And then all of a sudden, this. A church in a community that looks to be in its death throes. But I know better than to think all tiny towns are dying. They are as full of life as the people who choose to live there still. And yet this church, this church, as well as the grain elevator peeping over its shoulder, might be nearing the end. It stands straight now, but what is its future?

Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.

Night Work

There’s something about harvesting at night. When you know a landscape, you know its lights at night: the various yard lights punctuate the darkness. And so when there are bright lights where there is usually only the dark, you know a farmer is out there working. Rain is coming and so they work long after nightfall. The harvest late shift.

I see lights as I drive home, and I know they are in our field since I know where all our fields are, even when it’s dark. In the yard there are more lights where usually there are none. The bin yard is illuminated by the headlights of two pick-ups. The grain truck, which we call the “diesel truck” to distinguish it from the other grain truck, has its box tilted up. I hear the familiar sound of grain swishing down into the hopper where the augur’s whirring blades suck it up and deposit it into the waiting granary.

The smell of grain dust hangs in the air. There is movement and energy in the night, as there is always, but this is a more urgent energy, one powered by machine. Some might think it disrupts the quiet, but I am  comforted by it. There’s something about it. Something that feels like home.