And I Have Felt a Presence

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For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue. And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man

 

(William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, July 13, 1798)

Reconnecting with Land article

buffalo wallow rock

Clink on the link below for the article that will appear tomorrow (Aug 28 2015) in the Prairie Post. Thanks to Matthew Liebenberg for his questions and writing!

Prairie Post Aug 28 2015

Hugh magnified by valley

Un pèlerin des temps modernes retrace les pas de ses ancêtres

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You can find here the radio broadcast of my interview with Radio-Canada, in French, as well as a photo essay by William Burr, also in French, about the trail and our pilgrimage.

http://ici.radio-canada.ca/emissions/pour_faire_un_monde/2014-2015/chronique.asp?idChronique=380260

A Musical Moment

Kathryn Scott, Madonna Hamel and Matthew Anderson try to remember the words and harmonies to Java Jive. We were camping overnight at Chimney Coulee, near Eastend SK, and half-way through our group’s 350 km trek along the North West Mounted Police Patrol trail. This is a moment from a summer 2015 pilgrimage organized by Hugh Henry and Matthew Anderson. The video was shot by James Page, photographer, from Val Marie SK. on the NWMP Patrol Trail pilgrimage July 30, 2015

Some Kind of Weather Coming

Some kind of weather coming

That’s a prairie way of saying it. The expression can mean anything from hot temperatures to a tornado, and is usually delivered with the same inflection no matter which.

I found myself saying it on the second last day of the NWMP trail pilgrimage. We were walking atop a tableland of prairie grass. We’d slowed to look at tepee rings – about a dozen of them, stretching across several high hills. Just then there’d been a magical moment, as a small herd of unbroken horses wheeled counterclockwise around us at full gallop, circling to come up right behind Madonna, who was behind us and so intently peering at some of the rocks that she didn’t notice the animals, clustered and shivering, in turn peering at her. Then suddenly the horses were gone again, and we found ourselves looking up at an increasingly black, roiling cloud that stretched from one horizon to the other. A group of cattle nearby starting lowing – a plaintive, anxious sound. A muscular north wind came up, and with it the first drops of rain, pelting hard and from an angle. Some kind of weather coming.

We were too far from any coulees to take shelter, and there were no trees (not that trees would have been a good idea anyway). Gwenanne had found a small cut in the prairie, a few meters deep, and the group of us huddled in there. I still had some hot tea, but when the skies started growling thunder, some of us went to our elbows. The cattle were making very unhappy, frightened sounds. Rain beat down and lightning cracked. “It’s the bear principle,” I joked, “you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than the other person.” “Good, well one time to be happy I’m the shortest,” announced Madonna.

We found out later there was an extreme weather warning for wind and thunderstorms for our area at that moment. Just like the prairies, I thought, to give us such an experience on the second last day of trekking. The wind was so strong that the storm blew over, and drying out happened quickly, although the temperature had dropped precipitously. It was a howling, cold, night, and by the time the vehicles were moved and the tents put up we only had time for some soup. Communitas in a crowded van. I crawled in to my tent and listened a while to the gusts buffeting the nylon and straining at the stakes. Then I put in earplugs and borrowed in. Getting used to the prairie isn’t just beautiful sunsets and endless days of watching deer spring out of the valleys. It’s also this. A reminder just before parting. Some kind of weather.

Matthew post storm

Alive and Well

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There’s something exciting and exhilarating about taking shelter in the back of a van, the back gate up providing a temporary roof, watching the driving rain come down so hard you don’t dare step out into it. It feels just a bit precarious when the lightning is so loud and close you take your feet off the ground just in case there’s a nearby strike. Wondering if the tent you’ve set up under the caraganas will hold up and stay dry (especially since your sleeping bag is already in the tent. You can see the fabric of the fly bouncing from the weight of the downpour, the heavy rain spraying from the roof). But it’s also, somehow, comforting. You are – mostly – dry, the threatened wetness in your boots and the moisture seeping down your back balanced by the carrot and coriander soup mixed with long grain rice (British Army rations) that you’ve saved from the fire and are now eating, steaming hot, straight from the pot.

I’m alive and well. Both. I’m learning once again that the two are not always the same thing.

After the rain, a rainbow comes out over the Frenchman River valley, also known as Whitemud. The valley is so wide you can see both sides of the arc touching down. Golden light floods the river plain from the west. There are horses – perhaps a dozen – charging around the field beside us, kicking up their back legs, perhaps in relief at the temporary respite from the storm. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, their manes and tails flying against the dark sky.

The clouds close again and the rain settles in – 7/10ths by morning. I’m awakened several times by flashes of light and loud booms, and sometimes by the horses in the Green’s trailer, whose movements also sound like thunder. At 6:45 am Hugh and I meet in our rain ponchos in the drizzle, trying to decide what to do. Bishop Don’s tent has flooded. The horse folks are calling it a day before starting and starting to pack up. It will be impossible to get through the riverbank grass and lower bogs in any case, so we decide to postpone the half-day river section of the walk. We confer with the rancher, Terry Jensen, a cowboy so stoic he looks as though he would be unperturbed if a spaceship landed on his property. He owns as it might be good to wait. We drive up and out of the valley before the road becomes impassable. It’s the first day we’ve had to change plans. Flexibility, I tell myself, is one of the marks of a pilgrim.

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Making Medicine Pouches

I love my aunt. She’s always been like a second mother to me. Especially these last years, when my own mother failed, my aunt, as so often, was forced to be the safe harbour in which our family finds shelter.

My aunt is surprising. She stays up late and at 88 years old, still likes to travel. If there are potatoes to dig, she just might go dig them. She’s tough – and still, in the ways that count, old fashioned.

But not old fashioned in many other ways. We did something together tonight that I never thought we would do. We made and tied medicine pouches, with elk leather and sweetgrass from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The pouches are destined to be used as gifts here in Saskatchewan.

A big part of pilgrimage is learning how to receive the kindness of others. We haven’t even really begun our local Camino – this North West Mounted Police Patrol Trail pilgrimage – and so far there have already been meals, a donated vehicle, and beds to keep us sheltered until we put up our tents.

But part of pilgrimage is also recognizing what gifts we strangers bring with us to these lands we cross, and bringing physical evidence of such gifts with us. That is why I have the sweetgrass and the red string from the Mohawk, for some of the First Nations and Metis people we will meet here. I read recently that even though the Mohawk almost never came this far west, there was a group of them that overwintered, in the 19th century, in the Cypress Hills, where so many other First Nations gathered in the final, collapsing days of the bison hunting economy.

I wonder what those Mohawk saw, and thought. My aunt and I cut the leather and together wrapped up the sweetgrass. It felt like something blessed to be doing this with her, my aunt with whom so often I’ve gone to church and sung hymns as well. Someone with whom I hold this land, this prairie, in common. I held the pouch up to her nose: that smells so good, I said. Doesn’t it. That smell of leather.

She smiled. Or maybe what smells so good, she answered, is the sweetgrass.

Isabelle and the pouches