Tag Archives: prairies

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.


“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
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.
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.

Tumult in the Night

Storm watches and warnings all day. Talk of supercells and tornados and flash floods. Disbelief after months of drought that rain might come in such deluge.

Despite a wind blowing from the east (always a portent of changing weather, since it prevails from the west) and the red bars across the top of the weather forecast, I do not really believe the storm will be as bad as they say it might be. They’re only ever that bad when they come out of the blue.

All these years of living here, being from here and all, and I’m still surprised at the suddenness and the fierceness of a prairie thunderstorm. The frequent flashes of lightning are so common here all summer that I hardly notice them anymore. So when the wind suddenly sweeps down from the north in gale force, bringing with it a torrent, I rush to the window in disbelief.

It’s a nighttime storm, and so in the darkness there is no possibility of squinting at cloud formations for auguries and portents of what may come – is that a greenish tinge, signifying hail? Is that slowly rotating column a funnel trying to form? No, in the blackness I can only listen to the wind, ask it politely to please spare the tender stalks of my vegetables growing in the garden. I can only poke my head out the door and take in gulps of the rainy air, of that peculiar musty smell that only summer prairie rain has – a sharpness which constrasts so totally with the flatness of the droughty, dusty air of only moments ago.

And then, almost as soon as it crashed in, like a rude and drunken houseguest who is not entirely unwelcome, but still, some manners would be nice, the storm blows itself somewhere else, perhaps to rain harder to the east, or throw some hail further south. Or maybe just to weaken and scatter itself impotently across the land, feeble sheets of lightning its only remnant. Wherever and however it’s gone, it has left, and this time, thankfully, with little destruction to show for itself.

The Diviners

In a place like this, life is determined by the environment. The weather is omnipotent, like a god. It is always raining too much, or not enough, or not at all. If wheat is king, then rain is the power behind the throne.

And so it isn’t surprising that people whose livelihoods depend on the ungovernable whims of the weather would seek to wrest some sort of control from the void of uncertainty.

Divination, prognostication, prophecy – the foretelling of the future. As if by knowing ahead of time we can somehow change things that cannot be changed. Some might call it magic, witchcraft even. But the customs I am about to impart were not practiced by stereotypical old crones murmuring over bubbling cauldrons – or at least, not exclusively. Rather, they were carried out by Saskatchewan farmers within the last fifty years, perhaps right up to this day. And it usually happened on New Year’s Eve, or so I’ve been told.

What would happen is this:

The farmer took six walnuts, split them in half, cleared out the nutmeat, and placed the twelve empty shells on the mantel. Each husk represented a month. He filled them with water, the same exact amount in each, and retired for the night. The next morning, the first in the new calendar year, he checked each shell’s water level. The amount in each husk corresponded with the amount of moisture each month in the year would bring.

Another version:

The farmer cut up an onion, creating twelve equally sized “dishes.” These were filled with equal amounts of salt before the farmer went to bed. In the morning, he examined how much water had been sweated out of each onion to foretell the rainfall in each month of the coming year.

I’ve been told these methods of divination really worked. Whether they did or they didn’t, they were done. If I had known of this custom, and tried it last December 31st, would the walnut husks or the onion bowls have been dry as a bone in May and June?

Dance of the Cosmos

In the west, Jupiter and Venus have drawn closer, like a smitten couple preparing to join hands for a dance. Saturn, probably too shy to ask the glorious Luna to dance, lurks near her. Though she is nearly full, he refuses to let his light, cold as it is, dim in comparison. All the constellations are there too, of course, though some cannot compete with Luna. The Twins are there, Orion, Andromeda and her mother as chaperone, Perseus, Pegasus, and Leo. Sirius would never miss the party, nor would the Great and Lesser Bears, nor Orion. They’re all up there, and countless others, if your eyes can look close enough, or failing that, your telescope.

This, the middle of nowhere? Hardly. The whole Universe is right here, asking us all to dance.

Away and Back

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus…

– T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

The Going

It is in airplanes that I have had some of the most profound moments of my life. Up in the ether, suspended in time and space and yet hurtling through it, it is like I barely exist. The ultimate in-between, far removed from the groundedness of my usual humanity. Lost hours, breathing false air, merely existing in the gap between Heaven and Earth. It is an uneasy place to be. And yet in this strangeness I have had moments of intense clarity. When we burst through the clouds and seem to almost touch the sun, so pure is its light that tears rise unbidden. It is a feeling almost of immortality, as if humanity has been left far below and only the soul resides up here. Inevitably, a baby begins to fuss at these moments and my irritation reminds me I am only too human. Any shudders, any bits of turbulence throw my mortality into sharp focus – I am at the mercy of things I cannot control. Up here in this in-between space, a vulnerable vessel of blood and bone, dependent upon the whims of mechanics and human hands in a mysterious cockpit and the will of the gods, up here untethered in this space and yet firmly buckled in by order of the seatbelt sign, my soul seems to find its way.

The Waiting

Pearson International Airport, as far from the prairies as one can get, is as familiar to me as the streets of an oft-visited city. I drink a pot of tea, which I will regret once I am airborne, and I think, and suddenly, I write.

Like lovers need absence to sustain their love longtermm, sometimes/always my relationship to my home land is reinvigorated by sojourns abroad. In my everyday life, I never forget my love of the land, but I can take its grandeur for granted, I can become complacent in my worship of it. Many moons have passed (I’ve watched them all) since I have seriously written anything. Once my thesis was wrested from me, I felt depleted totally. I had many thoughts, many ideas, but felt no complusion, from within or from without, to write anything beyond what was required of me.

Then I packed my bags and got on a plane and within hours of leaving the prairies behind, letting the plains fall away, after just a few pages of a stimulating book (The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane), I felt it. The urge. My hand, out-of-practice, could hardly keep up to my mind as I scribbled.

it is the leaving that does it, and the anticipation of the return. Saskatchewan was never so beautiful, never so romantic, as it was in m imagination during the long months of self-imposed exile in Newfoundland. And here I am, on my way back to the Atlantic coast, and suddenly I can write again.

The Coming Back

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

As the plane makes its final, blessed descent to the waiting prairie below, I can tell that it has not rained. There is a certain dullness to the green grass, the blocks of fields should be further advanced. I can tell by the quality of the great plumes of dust following vehicles down gravel roads. There’s a thickness to it I can see even from hundreds of feet above. It is dry. I am home.

So happy to be home, and yet already daydreaming about my next sojourn “away”, about the destinations I hope to visit. Both dreading and desperately anticipating it, I plan my next arc through the skies. For as earthy as I am, the ground cannot hold me.

And so I go and go again and always return, never the same as when I left. But once returned, it is like I get to rediscover this place all over again. Even as the other place still clings to my skin, still sits prominently in my memory, the prairie wind starts to slough it away. Its insistence reminds me that this is where I belong, that I go away only so that I can come back.

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

                                          – T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”