Tag Archives: prairies

Catching Fireflies

They come out in June, just for a couple of weeks. Some years I’ve missed them entirely. But tonight as I stroll out in to the night to check on the watering of my garden, I see them – tiny flashes of fiery light flickering amongst the trees. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were fairies.

There is no breath of air and the stillness seems expectant. To the west, Venus and Jupiter shine benignly, as if they were proud parents of these earthly creatures trying so fiercely to imitate their celestial light. My brother and I cannot help but whisper in the presence of this magic, for that is what it is, despite what the scientists might say.

I hear that people travel great distances to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to see the lightning bugs dance. Perhaps the fireflies down there put on a greater show than here, but I feel no need to go elsewhere when I can see them for myself in their hundreds just a few feet past my garden.

I have never caught a firefly before, but tonight I am lucky to be with my patiently determined brother. Despite low-flying bats and the ominous scuffle of what may be a skunk in the nearby vicinity, we wait for the perfect moment. And it comes. My brother carefully gathers a firefly that had landed on the ground. It beams its little light so fiercely perhaps it thinks my brother’s large, gentle hands are a potential suitor.

We let it go, and it flickers back into the night with the rest of its fellows. Even now, inside writing by artificial light, I know they are out there flashing amongst the dark, still trees under Venus and Jupiter’s watchful gazes, doing what they were born to do. The sun has set, the moon has not risen, and yet there is so much natural light in this night.

June 7, 2015.
June 7, 2015.

Big Four School

Kristin Catherwood, September 13, 2013.
Kristin Catherwood, September 13, 2013.

Big Four School was so named for the “four big girls” who made up the scanty attendance roll for its first batch of pupils in the fall of 1915. These girls were: Helga Dahl, Myrtle Skappel, Clara Herfindahl and Runnel Dahl.
Like all country schools, it was the site of picnics, dances, Christmas pageants, field days and endless hours of play. It had nearly forty teachers throughout its 40-odd years of existence, most of them young women. In later years, one sees “Mrs” before some of the teachers’ names, reflecting a change in policy which allowed married women to teach. Big Four School is located in the far southwest corner of the R.M. of the Gap. It closed in 1961, but the 100-year-old building stands there still, marked by a plaque from the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Association.

**Historical information taken from Builders of a Great Land: History of the R.M. of the Gap No. 39

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”

Tapping

This isn't Ontario, Quebec, Vermont or Novs Scotia. This is Sasktchewan, just a few miles from Radville, to be exact. These are Manitoba maple trees.  Unlike their Sugar cousins, the ratio of syrup is 40:1 instead of 20:1. So, the return is not high. Apparently the finished product isn't quite as sweet as what you'll find in stores, but it is maple syrup nonetheless. A cottage industry in the making?
This isn’t Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, or Nova Scotia. This is Sasktchewan, just a few miles from Radville, to be exact. These are Manitoba maple trees. Unlike their Sugar cousins, the ratio of syrup is 40:1 instead of 20:1. So, the return is not high. Apparently the finished product isn’t quite as sweet as what you’ll find in the maple syrup sold in stores, but it is maple syrup nonetheless. A cottage industry in the making? March 22, 2015.

Printemps (or, The Big Puddle)

“…And yet, down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart, and the spring would come again! Oh, it would come again!” – Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

There’s a different smell to the air, a sort of sharp scent that dares winter to linger much longer.

The geese who call this place home have come home. The geese who use this place as a rest stop on the way to their homes further north are camping out.

There is muck everywhere.

On the Ides of March, before the equinox but close enough, the first hesitant croaking of a frog. It was a bit premature, but I heard it.

Skunks are on the move.

A muskrat was swimming in a slough.

I saw a raccoon resting on a bale.

It’s still light out at 7:30 in the evening.

The Big Puddle has arrived.

Spring is coming. It’s almost here.

The surest harbinger of spring there is - the Big Puddle forms in a depression in our yard after the snow melts. As children, my sister and I went through an average of four pairs of rubber boots a day. That puddle was more exciting than 1000 Barbie dolls, held more possibilities for fun than Disneyland itself. It was ourspringtime  kingdom.  March 15, 2015.
The surest harbinger of spring there is, The Big Puddle forms in a depression in our yard every spring. As children, my sister and I went through an average of four pairs of rubber boots a day playing in the puddle. That puddle was more exciting than 1000 Barbie dolls, held more possibilities for fun than Disneyland itself. It was ou rspringtime kingdom.
March 15, 2015.

Prairie Pilgrimage: I

“I began to realize how life for all of us in the West is shaped by Nature in ways we don’t even realize, much less notice consciously.”

– Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning

I had never read anything that had captured the way I felt about the prairie until I read The Perfection of the Morning four years ago. When I read it, I thought, finally, someone who understands.

September 26, 2014.
September 26, 2014.

Sharon Butala had known and captured certain truths of life on the prairie before I was born. But until I was a grown adult and read her work, I had never been able to articulate myself what the prairie meant to me. It’s no exaggeration to say that this blog, and much of what I focus my attention on both personally and academically, would not have come into being without her influence.

I met her briefly a couple years ago. I was so nervous I could barely speak (usually not a problem I have). But it was a moment I won’t ever forget, to meet someone of such wisdom, someone who knew and understood the soul of prairie, and not only that, but could express it.

As soon as I read The Perfection of the Morning, I wanted to visit Old Man on His Back (OMB), a prairie conservation area maintained by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Sharon and her late husband Peter had donated several thousand acres of pristine prairie grassland to the NCC years agoIt`s a remote place, four hours drive from my farm, in the extreme south and west of Saskatchewan. My friend had invited me to spend the weekend at Cypress Hills on the last weekend of Septemeber. I decided to take a circuitous, non-direct route that would allow me to see bits of Saskatchewan I’d never seen before, including OMB.

I arrived in the late afternoon, just as the sun was slanting its last rays across the prairie grass. I had called ahead and the interpreter, a woman who emigrated from England in the 1960s and has called this remote place home ever since, was kind enough to stay late for me.

I only had a short time to spend there, but I still remember vividly the quiet, the stillness, and the goldenness of that late September evening. Once I left, driving west on the grid road, dust behind me as I travelled onwards toward the Cypress Hills, purple in the distance, I knew very well I would come back to this sacred place. There was something magical about the drive to Cypress Hills that evening, through land I had never seen before.  Perhaps because I have read so much of Butala’s work,  I felt as if I knew it already deep in my bones.

An Iron Country

“It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.”

– Willa Cather, O Pioneers, 139.

January, month of Janus, who had two faces, one which looked backward and one which looked forward. He was a caretaker, a guardian of doorways. January, the month that gets rid of the old year and brings in the new. Also, the month where winter truly settles in and, as dear Willa Cather wrote so beautifully, “the spirit is oppressed.” At least, it seems that way.

In Saskatchewan, winter is a trial. An endurance test. Whiteout blizzards, 40 below, winds that slash your face and frost that will bite your skin. It’s all true, sometimes. This January has been strange. For two weeks, temperatures were above 0 degrees. El Niño or climate change or just irregularity, I’m not sure. It was strange though. Especially when one simply expects January to be difficult.

Winter is a struggle for me, as it is for so many. But in Saskatchewan, it’s so much a part of who we are. In the past, winter defined life all year round. The other three seasons were spent in preparation to survive it. Even now with our furnaces and cars and well-stocked grocery stores and trips to hot destinations, winter defines us. It is so long, so dark, so drab, so dry.

Creativity can come at any time of year, but in winter mine struggles to come to the surface. Right now and for the past while, I’ve not felt like creating anything, though not because I haven’t been inspired. There were a couple of weeks early in the month where timing was sweet enough to schedule my daily commute so that I drove into the sunrise every morning and into the sunset every evening.

The sky is inspiring every season, perhaps even more so in the winter. The horizon, so obviously round here in the flatlands, was a gradient of crimson, to golden pink, to mauve and darkening into deep plum twilight in the east. I did take photographs, but due to some tragic malfunction of Mercury (he’s travelling backwards just now), my flash card erased everything from the past month.

But still, I got to drink in the beauty of winter light with my own eyes, and it did settle into my soul nicely. So yes, inspiration abounds. Especially from the words of others. In winter, my own writing recedes as I soak up the words of books, my favourite form of nourishment. I take them in and let them brew and ferment and wait. And sometimes, like today, I have a sudden impulse to write something of my own.

So no photos to document this past month of beautiful winter light. Thankfully, nothing to document the past month of struggling to see the light, to feel warm (even on those unseasonally warm days) in this iron country. But, like iron, we who live here are strong. We always get through it.

After all, is cold not just an absence of heat? Much like darkness is merely an absence of light. The sun, old Helios up in the sky, is an unfailing cure for both, and he does not stay away from Saskatchewan during the winter, even on the days with the least warmth.

Some photos from December 2013.

Change of Season

– George Santayana

I used to try to hold desperately on to summer. I hated winter with such a vengeance that every sign of autumn was unwelcome, no matter how beautiful. I dreaded the first honks of migrating geese while simultaneously feeling moved by their sheer numbers, their incredible journey. I resented their Vs flying south because it meant winter was coming. I’ve learned to appreciate autumn more, and even winter. I’ve learned to love each season for what it is.

This year, I feel ready for winter to come. I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I can accept it. This change in mindset has been slowly changing for years, but it solidified last year when I was working on Master’s thesis. I spent nearly every day of September, October and November outside. I had never been so intimately acquainted with Nature on a daily basis before. The autumn unfolded slowly in front of my eyes. When winter did come, it was not an unwelcome shock as it had always been when I lived in the city away from Nature or when I was younger and blinder. It was simply the natural unfolding of events. It was time.

Because I spent so much time outdoors, I also noticed things I had never paid attention to before. I’ve always considered myself a Nature lover, someone who goes gamboling about just because I enjoy fresh air and the beauty of the natural world. But I had never had the opportunity to just be in it for such a stretch of uninterrupted time before. I had never had the chance to let it seep into me. It changed my life. This blog exists because of it. And so here are some of the harbingers of the coming winter.

Leaves and lack thereof All trees have their own schedules and agendas. Here in Saskatchewan we don’t have the brilliant foliage displays like they have back East; the trees go about their business more quietly. Some begin to change in early September, some trees have shed their summer adornment completely by the first of October. Others take their time about it, like the stately poplar in my yard that just changed colour last week and is still clinging onto the last of its leaves. It has also shared some of them via a west wind with the evergreens across the lawn.

Bearing of fruit My garden (my first) came into its full fruition. The spuds were the last to go, and what a harvest it was. Wild plants have also borne fruit, like the wild roses along the ditch who are proudly displaying their hips.

Birds There is nothing as awe-inspiring as the great autumn migrations, nothing. The sandhill cranes have been and gone, uttering their strange guttural cries. The geese are just coming now in their giant flocks – tens of thousands in one field, sometimes. I can hear them at night as they rest on Stink Lake a few miles to the northeast. The blackbirds left earlier. Some of the smaller birds leave so quietly that I don’t notice until they return with their happy songs in the spring. Right now I am obsessed with the Tundra swans that have taken up temporary residence on the wetland north of home and the slough south of home, hence the excessive amount of swan photos. I’ve never seen so many in one year before. I hope they like the looks of the Gap and decide to come back next year, too.

Digging in Burrowing mammals are digging in and getting settled for the cold to come. The most obvious form of this is the muskrat house. Muskrats live in sloughs and other bodies of water. Around this time of year, their houses start popping up, built of mud and grass and other local materials. Truly vernacular architecture. Folklore says that the size of muskrat houses determines the severity of the coming winter. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, we might be in for a cold one.

Light and shadow It wasn’t until last year that I truly understood the  movement of the sun and how it determines the seasons. As I photographed barns every day, I had to keep changing the settings on my camera as the days progressed. I finally realised the obvious: the sun was changing position in the sky, slowly but surely. It sits lower in the sky. Shadows lengthen – even in the fullness of the afternoon, they are longer than in the summer. The angle of the sunlight casts a golden hue on everything. To each season, its own light. And me, chasing it.