“Six inches of rain a year is just about perfect. You can grow a crop on three inches, if it comes at the right time, but six inches is what you want.”
– H. Crone, June 22, 2014
To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee.
– Emily Dickinson
Badlands sky. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
I wrote the first post of this blog on the Winter Solstice, the longest night. Yesterday was the longest day, the summer solstice. Throughout time, humans have marked the solstices and the equinoxes with special rites. They have built monuments precisely aligned with the rising or setting solstice suns. They have gathered in places that are sacred to watch the first or the last rays of the sun on these tipping points in the year.
The summer solstice is a culmination. Though the fullness of summer is still a few weeks away, the solstice marks the time of year when everything reaches toward the sun – every growing thing, every living thing. It is a bittersweet day, for it means that tomorrow the sun’s light recedes from us a bit every day, imperceptibly at first, until darkness comes earlier and we begin to approach the autumnal equinox, when everything has borne fruit and must dig in for winter.
When you live in a rural place where you can see the sun and how it moves throughout the year, this cyclical routine of the sun seeps into your bones, just as the lunar cycle does. We don’t even notice it, usually, because it’s so much a part of us.
A sacred place in southern Saskatchewan is the Big Muddy Badlands, also known as the Big Muddy Valley, or more simply, just the Big Muddy. This is a place of spectacular beauty, of exhilarating history. The Big Muddy was the Wild West. Outlaws, cattle rustling, horse thieving, rum running, it all happened there. Sitting Bull rode through it. Countless horses and cattle have grazed its grasses. Before all of this, the aboriginal peoples considered it a holy place, judging by the amount of effigies found there. Thousands of tipi rings stand in silent testimony of lives lived there for thousands of years.
The Big Muddy will be referred to again and again in this blog, I’m sure. It is a place of mystery and magic and legends and lore. It is one of my favourite places on earth, perhaps second only to the Gap country, its nearest neighbour to the east.
I travelled with good friends to the Big Muddy the evening of the solstice to watch the sun set at its late hour. No monuments are needed to mark the sacred solstice in the Big Muddy. The landscape itself is the most perfect venue imaginable for such a rite. The Big Muddy is a place of light and shadow, of constant contrasts. It is the only place I wanted to be to watch the sun set on the Longest Day.
Badland buttes. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Grass, Sky, Song. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Clouds over a coulee. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
By the shores of Big Muddy Lake. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Badlands flora. Kristin Catherwood. June 21. 2014.
Solstice shadows. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Big Muddy Lake. Krisitn Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
Hole in the Wall. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
The last light of the sun. Kristin Catherwood. June 21, 2014.
“The sensually descriptive folk names which people attach to the flora, fauna, and topographical features of a place provide a similar view of the local knowledge and interpretation of the physical components of that place, as do a few types of place-based narrative – like local legends and tall tales – which rely for much of their meaning on the nature of their physical setting. Such lore goes beyond cartographic symbols to get its hands dirty among the things that the symbols represent”
– Kent C. Ryden, Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place*
By Shawn Catherwood
Stink Lake is what we call it. I’m sure there is a proper name for this elegant body of water. Whatever that name is, it is not of importance to me. The name we gave it is all too perfect. This so called lake has quite the distinct smell that one would not pass by without commenting on that foreign stench traveling through their nostrils. Don’t be thrown off, this lake is as beautiful as it gets this close to home.
Just a meagre three miles from the place I call home, I turn my steering wheel and smoothly slide along the gravel as I turn onto the goat trail that will take me to the majestic Stink Lake. The koisha weeds scrape the bottom of the vehicle like sand paper. I try not to focus my attention to the chilling century old house alongside the trail, as the glassless windows seem to be watching me trespass into this pocket of the world.
I trek a few hundred yards down to the sand where I have arrived just in time for the mysterious ball of fire in the sky to recede below the horizon. I sit there in silence, taking everything in. The rolling hills of the gap in which a glacier passed through millions of years ago are in the background, the golden stubble of a recent wheat field in front. The stench of the lake hangs in the air like fog. I’m not fazed by it because the glare of the sunset on the lake eliminates my other four senses. Motionless, I sit as I take in this beauty. It is now dusk and if I want to escape this foreign corner of the province I need to leave right now before it is too dark. Today there is no full moon to guide me, I’ll be trapped. So I leave, “til’ next time Stink lake”.
Nothing compares to the beauty of this body of water crevassed between fields and hills. It’s a place of complete stillness, it is surreal. To release all emotions and feel nothing but relief and happiness. Stink Lake is as real of a place as there is. A place I can call mine.
There’s nothing I can add to that beautiful piece of writing to describe Stink Lake. It’s beautiful not only because my usually taciturn, practical little brother wrote it – someone who does not enjoy writing or consider himself talented at it (though I would beg to differ), but also it is beautiful because of how strongly centred in place it is. Shawn wrote this for a Grade Twelve English assignment last fall that required students to write about one of their favourite places. We folklorists talk a lot about space and place because we’ve figured out that place is absolutely essential to a community’s sense of identity, as well as to individuals’ sense of who they are. Often we go through our lives without really thinking about what the place we live in means. We absorb it into us, so that it becomes part of us, but we don’t often talk about it except in practical terms.
Stink Lake, as my brother wrote, is just three miles from our farm. It has always held a special place in my imagination. It’s an alkaline lake – hence the stink. There are times, in dry years, when it is empty of water. The last few years have been wet, so it’s full, and it truly is an impressively large body of water in this dry region. During the fall migration, it becomes a centre of bird activity. The cacophony of all the geese, cranes, and other migrators travels over its waters and right into our farm yard. I can hear it at night when I’m falling asleep. During the spring and summer, a squadron of pelicans can usually be found on the lake’s island, which we call Pelican Island, of course.
When I was about eleven, I wrote a dramatic murder mystery story in which the unfortunate victim’s corpse was dumped in Stink Lake. My relatively rare excursions to the shores of Stink Lake are exciting because there are always interesting birds and animals to see, and as my brother captured so well in his essay, there’s just something about the place that stimulates the imagination. It’s not very easy to get to. The stink is not all that strong these days, since the water is so high. In low water years, it smells sulfurous, rotten eggy. I found out recently that the body of water is properly named Cockburn Lake, probably after an early homesteader or a surveyor. But that name evokes nothing. This body of water is known simply as Stink Lake by everyone in the area because, as my brother wrote, “it is as real of a place as there is.”
Stink Lake. Photo: September 14, 2013. Kristin Catherwood.
*Kent C. Ryden. 1993. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 63.
ha·rangue [huh–rang] noun. 1. a scolding or a long or intense verbal attack; diatribe. 2.a long, passionate, and vehement speech, especially one delivered before a public gathering. 3.any long, pompous speech or writing of a tediously hortatory or didactic nature; sermonizing lecture or discourse.
If you want to get my blood boiling, say something like, “Saskatchewan is boring and flat” in my presence. Today a visitor to the museum where I work said, in response to my question about his ride on the Southern Prairie Railway, “It was all right. There’s not much for scenery in Saskatchewan.” If I bit my tongue every time I heard a phrase like that, I’d be tongueless.
What I wanted to say to the gentleman was, “First of all, sir, please take of your sunglasses; you’re inside now. Also I want you to look me square in the eye when you utter such a flagrantry disrespectul and ignorant remark. Secondly, you’re completely wrong, and here’s why.”
But I didn’t want to get fired. So instead, I said calmly, “Wow, you must not get out much if that’s what you think.” He laughed until he realised I wasn’t kidding, then said, “I guess you have to learn how to see the beauty here.” It’s a fair point, I suppose. To the uninitiated, Saskatchewan might seem a little less exotic than say, the Rocky Mountains. My step grandmother, who came from England, told me that it took her awhile to see the beauty of the prairies, but now she can’t imagine living anywhere else. A lot of people’s experiences of Saskatchewan are limited to cruising along the abysmal Trans Canada highway which cuts jaggedly (though sensibly) across the flattest part of the province. Those who have ever landed at Regina’s airport can attest to the absolute flatness of the Regina Plains, which might seem “boring” or “ugly” if your aesthetic sensibilities require a beauty that shouts loudly in your face, mountain style, rather than murmuring softly, prairie style.
Nothing to see here, folks. Please move along to a place where the grass is greener. June 7, 2014. Kristin Catherwood.
It turns out this man actually grew up in southwestern Saskatchewan, one of the most beautiful regions of the province, in my opinion, but has since located to the more standardly accepted picturesqueness of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. I’d be the last person to deny the awesome beauty of BC’s mountainous landscape. However, I still don’t think it compares to the prairie. And to know that he had grown up on the prairie and never learned to love its beauty before jumping ship eliminated any slack I would have cut him.
I was so riled up by this encounter (though I should be used to them by now), that I mentioned it to my boss. She grimaced and said, “you know, we used to be called “the gap” – the space between Manitoba and Alberta.” I’ve heard similar comments, but never the exact terminology of Saskatchewan being known as the “gap” province. Hm, another reason why this blog is called From the Gap, perhaps? We in Saskatchewan of course have our own ideas about our position in relation to our neighbouring provinces. A popular phrase is: “Alberta Blows, Manitoba Sucks,” ostensibly in reference to the prevailing winds, but obviously a dig at the (perceived) shortcomings of our prairie sibling provinces.
There is that old phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Perhaps instead of vigorously arguing why my province is so spectacular, I should just smile in sympathy at people who utter ignorant statements about Saskatchewan’s apparent lack of aesthetic qualities. After all, it must be a pitiable existence to have so little poetry in the soul that one is oblivious to the beauty of the prairie. I should let such people go merrily on their way, content that I know a secret they do not. Their definition of “gap” is different from mine – all the more tragedy for them.
These Canadian geese understand the value of a gap. May 25, 2014. Kristin Catherwood.
June 7, 2014.
June 7, 2014.
June 7, 2014.
“Shadows lengthen; the sunlight fades from cloud to cloud, kindling their torn edges as it dies from softness to softness down the prairie sky. A lone farmhouse window briefly blazes; the prairie bathes in mellower, yellower light, and the sinking sun becomes a low and golden glowing on the prairie’s edge.
– W.O. Mitchell, Who Has Seen the Wind*
I arrived home earlier this evening in the midst of a thunderstorm. I’d had a long day of driving home from Winnipeg, and encountered more than one storm along the way. I both love and fear thunderstorms. They are a common occurrence here in the summer. I am awed by their power and beauty, but also frightened by the destruction they can cause. I also have a real fear of getting struck by lightning – which is a more common possibility than people usually think!
But no matter what a storm brings, it is always calm in its aftermath. There is nothing as spectacularly beautiful as the light after an early evening thunderstorm. The sun slants its golden rays, conspiring with the retreating moisture laden clouds to create rainbows. I waited for the storm to pass so I could take my new camera lens to chase some of the best light there is in the world, if you’re into landscape photography.
Sometimes I think I am addicted to this landscape. I can’t stop staring at it. If I could bottle it up and drink it, I would. The thing is, though the topography remains the same, the light is constantly changing. It’s like the sea in that way – always dynamic, never static. No two sunsets are ever the same, nor two sunrises, not even two noons. There’s nothing for it but to keep chasing the light.
* W.O. Mitchell. 1947. Who Has Seen the Wind. Toronto: Seal Books, 59.
“The railway ended the complete isolation of the homesteader.”
– From Builders of a Great Land
Have passenger trains always seemed romantic? Or were they just as utilitarian and ho-hum as highways? Probably. But they seem very romantic now, especially in Saskatchewan where they have all but disappeared. There’s the Via train which connects the Pacific to the Atlantic. I journeyed to Halifax that way three years ago. To get to the train station, I had to drive two and a half hours. There was something a bit ironic about that, I thought.
Now there’s another option. The enterprising town of Ogema, population less than 500, has a tourist train. The Southern Prairie Railway allows train lovers and prairie lovers and curious tourists to rumble through the rolling prairie of southern Saskatchewan at 25 kms/hour. I finally went yesterday. It was a perk of my new job working at Ogema’s Deep South Pioneer Museum. As the train chugged out of the station, and the lush late May countryside rolled past, I had a lump in my throat. Not everyone loves trains, but I do, I really do. Even the smelly, congested trains of Great Britain which are anything but romantic were a treat for me. Even the claustrophobic, nauseating subway is something special for me. So to be on a train in my very own backyard (just 28 miles from home) was more than special.
The CNR tracks are about two miles south of my farm. They connect Radville to Ceylon, through Hardy and then on to Bengough. From any of those stations you could get on a train that would take you somewhere with more tracks that could get you on a train that took you anywhere, even to the sea where a ship could take you across it, back to the homeland perhaps. It’s been at least a decade since I last saw a train go by on those tracks south of my farm. Even when I was a kid, when the elevators were still in Ceylon, it was a rare enough sight to be noteworthy. But my school bus driver always stopped at them and opened the doors to look both ways down the track. There’s no need for that now.
Before the tracks came to Ceylon in 1910, the homesteaders had no transportation but their own two legs or horses. The nearest station at first was Yellow Grass, about thirty miles northeast of my farm, as the crow flies, or the horse and wagon ride. Many would have pressed on for Weyburn, about forty miles east, since it was bigger and had more amenities. They had to lay in enough supplies to get them through to the next trip. They had to make sure they had enough food and fuel to get through the winter. Sometimes they did not. There are stories of homesteaders surviving on nothing but flour for weeks. Once a homesteader near Ogema ran out of coal to fuel his stove, so he moved into his sod barn and took his newly built frame house apart, using the wood for fuel. There are stories of people braving extreme weather to walk or ride to a neighbour’s house to ask for food.
Now the tracks that run through the Gap are growing weeds. But the Southern Prairie Railway provides the opportunity to get a sense of what it was like “back then” before cars and highways and semi trucks. The train was not a peaceful, scenic journey then, though it could be. It was a vital part of prairie life. It was what created the towns, and it dictated the rhythms of people’s lives. No wonder it seems romantic now.
*Builders of a Great Land: History of The Gap No. 39 Ceylon and Hardy. 1980. History Committee of R.M. of the Gap No. 39, 3.
**Radville-Laurier: The Yesteryears. Radville, SK: Radville Laurier Historical Society. 1983
“Early settlers often measured the boundaries of their homestead by tying a rag around their buggy wheel. By measuring the wheel, it was easy to figure out the number of revolutions it should make in one half mile or a mile. All one had to do, then, was concentrate on counting.”
– Memories of Ogema and District Pioneers, “Tales of Old Timers,” 43.
In medieval Europe there was a tradition of beating the bounds on Ascension Day or sometime during Rogationtide (the three days leading up to Ascension Day). Rogationtide, derived from the Latin rogare, to ask, was an official Church sanctioned observance on the calendar. It was a time to pray for God’s blessing on the crops and the prevention of natural disasters like plague and drought. Processions were held throughout the parish, and beating the bounds was part of this.
Though it was a religious event in the Middle Ages, the practice of beating the bounds could be far older. Some scholars speculate it was derived from the Roman festival Terminalia, with others claiming pre-Roman “Celtic” origins for the practice. Whatever its origins, it is clearly folkloric in nature. Boundaries have been important for as long as humans have claimed certain spaces and places as their own. In the centuries and millennia before ordnance maps and road signs, boundaries existed in folk memory only. One had to remember that this side of the river belonged to us, but that side of the river did not. This grove is ours, that hill is theirs. During the beating of the bounds, young men sometimes had their heads bashed against rocks or trees, or had to wade across streams so they would have a physical memory of the boundary. People marked the boundary spots by flailing them with willow wands or switches of hazelwood. Some places in England still carry on this tradition, though with less bashing in of heads.
As far as I know, no similar tradition exists in Saskatchewan. However, yesterday was Ascension Day, and if there is a better way to spend a Thursday evening than perambulating a quarter section, I don’t know it. And so I beat the bounds of my family’s original homestead quarter. There was no beating or bashing of anything, just the occasional stamping of feet from frustration at the hordes of mosquitoes feasting on my flesh. But it was a good exercise, in more ways than one. Each quarter section being a 1/2 mile long, I walked two miles over freshly seeded ground. And it was an exercise in observation. Why did my great great grandfather choose this particular piece of land?
He was one of the first in the Gap country to claim a homestead, so he had the pick of the land. It had not been surveyed yet. According to family history, Grandpa Tom and his brother Jim “travelled over a lot of land and decided on the land we now have.” It is not written why they chose it. As I ambled about last evening, I tried to figure out why they might have done so. It’s relatively flat. The soil is heavy, lots of clay. Perhaps the native prairie grass grew more lushly there. There is a draw, a shallow drainage passage that funnels water from the spring runoff or heavy rains. Water is scarce in these parts, so perhaps this draw drew them in? However, there is a creek just a mile or so to the south. Why not homestead there, where the water was more abundant? When I got home, I asked my dad why they had chosen this particular land. He said something about the grass growing thicker there, and about the “pothole slough” which provided a water source. I noticed this tiny body of water, more a puddle than anything, but did not think it was significant enough to photograph. Apparently I would not have been a very good land prospector.
The draw winds its serpentine course. Though it doesn’t look like much, it’s a verdant paradise for insects, birds, rodents and reptiles, just as important a river valley as the Tigris or the Euphrates. So life-giving is this little passage for water, it even permitted the growth of a solitary tree.
The lush vegetation produced by one modest draw: a profusion of cattails and a lone Manitoba Maple.
For whatever reasons they chose it, this quarter section (160 acres) became their new home. To prove it up, they had to pay a $10 registry fee and then they had three years to break ten acres of land a year, build a house and live on the homestead for six months each year. The first house was a “soddie.” After the three years, if the homestead had been successfully “proven up,” one could file for a pre-emption, the adjoining quarter section, at the bargain basement rate of $4 an acre. This was done, and by 1909 they had a half-section of land, 360 acres. In those days, that was something.
During my walk, I came across some fragments of the past: two were probably homestead relics, the other is far older. There was a horseshoe, rusted and bent out of all proportion. It’s a big one, so perhaps it came from a draft horse, thrown while pulling a plough or a hay rake. But my great great-grandfather Thomas had a blacksmith shop on the homestead when they first started out and my great great – grandfather Ernest Freeman who homesteaded a mile south was a blacksmith also; perhaps it was discarded from one of those smithies. I also found, not far from the shoe, some kind of part from farm machinery. There is a bit of writing on it; all that I could make out was “lbs” and “Canada.” Not much help. It’s very heavy, very rusty, but still in okay shape. I have no idea what it could be. When I asked my dad, he suggested some kind of gear from a threshing machine, the giants that were used before combines. In that case, it could be 90-100 years old. The last thing I found was a natural feature, here long before iron came to the prairies. It’s a mottled stone, not exactly an omar, but interesting nonetheless. It was probably caused by something glacial. just like the Gap country itself.
Remnants of the past.
As for the boundary of the land itself, it was pretty clear, as are most land boundaries in Saskatchewan. The land was very precisely parcelled up by surveyors. I knew that after a half mile, this quarter section would end, and the next begin. It was also obvious by the change in the field; their field was stubble, ours was not. Also, at the end, there are little triangles of land where the farm machinery has had to cut corners to make the turn. This is a good Saskatchewan indicator of a land boundary, at least boundaries of farmland.
Finding the boundary.
After beating the bounds of my family’s original homestead land, I have a little better understanding of why they chose it, though their reasons are lost to time. Whatever compelled or impelled my great great-grandfather to stake a claim on that particular piece of land, we still call it our own, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m here now.