Tag Archives: prairies

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.

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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”

Voyagers

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