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.
Led by guides, the machine gunners crept out into craters half-way between their own lines and the Germans. There they took cover until dawn. Just before daylight a bold sergeant named Catherwood crawled out to bring them a bottle of rum. A German machine gun crew spotted him creeping back and opened fire, but he managed to roll into his forward trench unharmed.
– Pierre Berton, Vimy, 207.
Imagine if one of those bullets had got him. I wouldn’t be typing this. He would never have met Dorthea Wilson, the Welsh nurse. She would never have agreed to leave her life behind and marry him, taking up a new and entirely foreign life in a small homestead shack in the southern prairies of Saskatchewan.
That “bold sergeant” was my great-grandfather, Sherwood. The one who homesteaded out here in 1905, at age 17. He was 28 at Vimy – the same age I am now. He was born in 1888, one hundred years before I was. I’ve always felt an affinity with this ancestor who died decades before I was born. Perhaps that’s why it was important for me to go to Vimy. Important as a Canadian, yes. But also important for my own roots.
Just a few miles away, in the shadow of the infamous ridge, is the grave of another relative of mine, Reginald Freeman. He died more than a year before Vimy Ridge, his life halted at age 20. I was there to visit him, too, in his eternal resting place far from home. But at Vimy, that splendid monument, the signs warning of mines still buried beneath the strikingly green grass, I realized that if it weren’t for that horrific war, I probably would never have been born.
The Catherwood farm might still be here, but it would be different Catherwoods living on it. Sherwood, without going off to war, probably would have eventually married someone else. So yes, Vimy is important to me, to us. It felt eerie to stand on that ground, on a quiet, hot August day, as tourists (myself included) milled about. To know that Sherwood had been there in entirely different circumstances. No peaceful, green scene for him. No, what he knew of Vimy was blood and muck, those grisly scenes so familiar to us from countless black and white photos.
I remember my dad telling that story mentioned in Berton’s book when I was a kid, though we didn’t know it was noted in the historical record. In my dad’s telling, some of the details were missing, others were added. As I recall, in family folklore, Sherwood went out to do something he wouldn’t expect his men to do. The part about him delivering rum was absent. But the machine gunfire aimed his way and his dive into the trench, that was there.
Years later, as a university student, when I read Pierre Berton’s Vimy, there he was – my grandfather. That story. Meaningful. Something I make sure to mention whenever conversations concerning World War I come up. But now as I sit to write this, I wonder, why, why is it important to me? Because my ancestor was part of something famous? Because the story hinted at his bravery? Because I was proud of his service to his country?
I sometimes grow weary of our society’s endless commemorations of war, even though my family has plenty of reason to remember, to never forget. It wasn’t just Sherwood in those trenches – his brothers were there, too, and Reginald. Sherwood’s son, my grandfather, drove tanks in the Second World War. And it didn’t leave them unscathed. Grandpa Orville would never talk about it, but his years of alcoholism likely came about at least in part because his war experience. We often speak of war in the same sentences as “glory” and “valour.” We speak of sacrifice, too. I think the glory and valour fade away long before the sacrifice does.
Sherwood was shell shocked, as they said back then. How could you not be? So was my other great-grandfather, William (Bill) Cooper. He spoke with a stutter, a legacy of the war, or so I’m told. He served in the British Army. When he returned home to Glossop, Derbyshire afterwards, there was no work for him. So he emigrated, ended up in Saskatchewan, and married a girl named Bernice Freeman. Her brother, Reg, had died in France in 1916. He was to inherit the farm, but now with him never coming home, it was Bill and Bernice who took it over. Their daughter, Joyce, married Orville.
And so again, that war, and how it shaped my family. A sense of pride that my ancestors were part of something so momentous. And the knowledge that, no matter how little they talked about it, the war stayed with them. Had to have. The trauma of it. Clausen and Cashwell, Sherwood’s brothers, were never able to recover. Cashwell ended up in an asylum, and Clausen was a known eccentric, a reclusive bachelor who lived alone in the hills south of our place. Sherwood and Bill managed to go on, to build good lives for themselves and their families. But what demons did they have to face each night when they were alone in the darkness, as we all are in those moments and hours before sleep claims us?
I’m not proud of Sherwood for happening to be at Vimy. I am proud of his courage, certainly, and grateful that those bullets missed him. This battle looms large in the collective memory of (many) Canadians. It’s one of those historic events that has been told and retold so often that the memory of it is more significant than was the event itself. I’m not sure if Vimy Ridge truly did make Canada what it is, as has been claimed. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Vimy has become a symbol for nationhood – one of those things we’re told so often it must be true, right? But even if Vimy’s actual significance is more myth than history, a symbol is a powerful thing. And in my own life, Vimy, and that war, weren’t just symbols of valor, sacrifice, and duty. That war shaped our family in tangible ways.
That hot August day in Nord-pas-de-Calais, as I gazed over the countryside, I thought of the futility of it all. And yet, the utter predictability. Those blood soaked trenches are on ground that has been bloodied again and again throughout time. War after war fought. This great battle just the most recent, and now a hundred years gone. Humans know nothing so well as war. And as I stood beneath the glorious monument, I was struck most by the feeling of grief. I’m not proud of Sherwood for fighting at Vimy Ridge. But still. were it not for Vimy, and for that war, Sherwood wouldn’t have ended up in that Red Cross hospital in Reading, where he met Dorthea, the bespectacled nurse from Cardiff. She patched him up, and somewhere along the way they fell in love, and because of that, I’m here.
In a way, we’re war children. But I don’t want to be proud of that war. I want to acknowledge that it happened, and that it was important. I would rather be proud that Sherwood managed to keep the farm together during the tough, depression years of the ’30s. That he maintained a reputation as a kind and clever man, despite his shell shock. Mostly, I’m grateful to him – that he homesteaded where he did, stuck it out through all those tough years, and created the home I love. My roots are here in the Gap country, and it was Sherwood who planted them. In the end, the war, and Vimy Ridge, were just something that happened in his life, something he was lucky to survive, and something that brought him to the same place at the same time as Dorthea.
Last fall, my Uncle Harold, 92 years old, returned to the prairies for a short time. Born and raised here, he’s lived in BC now for more than 60 years. But still, somehow he was in alignment with the elements of his birthplace.
It was a sunny day, 25 degrees, the first of October, a Saturday. Harvest in full swing, rushing to its end, but still some crop out. Harold warned the harvesters, “you have one good day left.” He could smell the snow in the wind, he claimed. Hard to believe when the day felt like August.
Monday the wind and rain started, continued through Tuesday, and Wednesday, the snow. Harold’s nose smelled true.
He used to witch for water, too. Could tell where it was even without the rods, or so he says.
I can smell rain, it’s true. But only when it’s an hour away, not a day or more. Does one learn to witch, or are you born with it?
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.
On the 18 heading east, just out of Big Beaver, and the road drops down into a steep curve. It was icy so I had slowed down, and good thing because as I rounded the curve, a half-dozen prairies chickens and as many mule deer greeted me. Only one deer was actually on the road, and he bounded off quickly into the coulee at the side of the road to join his fellows. But the prairie chickens were in a panic, and one of them slid and skidded on the ice, wings flapping frantically, little legs all askew. It about broke my heart. Who hasn’t looked silly trying to keep upright on a slippery surface? Who hasn’t panicked in the face of something unexpected bearing down upon you? The hen righted herself and scuttled away, perhaps a bit embarrassed, and a lot relieved, to join the rest of her flock.
And I continued on down the highway because what else could I do?
The setting sun had cast a pinkish hue glowing on the hills that I kept driving down and into, and I hope the prairie chickens and the deer managed to find a cozy corner of a coulee to bed down in. As for me, I was driving into my own predicament, little did I know it. One quick decision to go forward when I should have turned back and suddenly, I was stuck in a snowdrift across a gravel road.
As I waited for my help to arrive in the form of a friend who I called upon in my moment of need, my thoughts turned back to rounding that curve, how I had been just as surprised by the deer and the prairie chickens as they were by me. As night fell darker and the cold grew even more bitter, a slight trickle of unease wormed its way down my spine. I had my cell phone, and help was on its way. I knew I would get out of my spot of trouble and get on home to my own warm bed. But sitting there alone in the cold darkness, well in the “middle of nowhere”, sitting in the middle of a road that no one had driven down in a good half hour, I thought about how movement can be arrested so quickly. I thought about how lucky I was. But even more, I thought about how lucky that prairie chicken was that I had slowed rounding the curve.
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.
When I was a kid, we learned about Louis Riel. We learned that there used to be a lot of bison everywhere and that First Nations people from various groups hunted them using bows and arrows and buffalo jumps and buffalo pounds, and that they made use of every part of the animal, down to the sinew. We were taught that a lot of place names in Saskatchewan, including that of the province itself, came from First Nations words, though besides place names, I knew no words in any aboriginal language. We learned that they had signed treaties back a long time ago which meant that the white people got most of the land. We learned that some bad things had happened, like residential schools. I attended maybe one powwow somewhere at one point in my life. This is not to cast aspersions on my teachers, who were good teachers. They were doing their jobs, teaching what was required of them from the curriculum. So we had to learn about some aboriginal stuff, but we also had to learn about a bunch of other stuff, and that was just the way it was and I didn’t question it. Always a good student and a thoughtful person, I figured I was pretty well-informed. I even went through two university degrees and by the end of it all I thought I was pretty smart, I knew a lot of stuff, I was no dummy, and I was certainly not ignorant.
Or so I thought. Last year I applied for a job with a cultural organization, and during the interview I was asked how much experience I had working with aboriginal people. I knew the question was coming, and I was honest in my answer – “none so far, but I’m interested in working with aboriginal communities.” It was the “right” thing to say, and it was also true. But I didn’t admit that I felt intimidated by the process, that maybe, it was easier to just go on mostly ignoring my aboriginal neighbours as I had done all my life to that point. It was pretty easy to do. There were no reserves within a couple hours of my home, I didn’t live in a city, and so I could go about my life without coming in contact with very many aboriginal people.
I got the job, and not long after I started, I attended a cultural event where I was supposed to talk about my role and the organization I worked for. I was supposed to talk about culture. It was the first time in my life that I was the only white person in a group, a fact of which I was acutely conscious. I was nervous that I would say something stupid, offend someone unwittingly, nervous that I would be regarded as the White Girl sashaying in with all my materials and my ready offers of “help.” I was smart enough to realize as soon as I arrived that I was not there to teach anyone anything. I was there to listen. And to learn.
I fell back on the comfortable, old “where are you from?” icebreaker to start connecting with people. I got answers like Beardy’s, Gordon’s, Standing Buffalo. I knew enough to know they were referring to reserves. But I had no idea where any of them were, and I didn’t ask. I realized, with that squirmy, embarrassed feeling – in fact, a burning-faced, ashamed feeling, that I had just stumbled into my own ignorance.
The map of Saskatchewan is “easy to draw, hard to pronounce!” as kitschy t-shirts proclaim with glee. It’s also hard to understand, just looking at it. Road maps are different from geological maps are different from the maps we carry around in our own heads. I realized in that moment that the Saskatchewan I knew was just one version of it, and a highly skewed version at that. I couldn’t place any reserves except for a few. They had no meaning in my map of Saskatchewan, and yet they meant everything. Their existence enabled my great-grandfathers to claim quarter-sections of land as their own. My home and everything connected with it, every single emotion tied to this particular patch of earth, owes its existence to those reserves and the treaties which had created them. And I knew so little, I this well-educated, self-aware, proudly intellectual person. I knew nothing at all.
That was the day I began my real education, the one I did not have access to in elementary and high school, the one I did not go looking for in university because at the time, it didn’t “interest” me. A year after my lesson in ignorance, I know that I have lessened it. I know better, I know more. I have faced uncomfortable truths and difficult realities. I have been welcomed, I have been taught. There is no going back, and I wouldn’t want to even if I could. There is only going forward, and this journey has only just begun.