My thanks to George Tsougrianis, who did a great job on this documentary, putting it together in two days! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLUdJZC72GU&feature=youtu.be&t=2m45s
Learning a Language
Yesterday, while walking the long, long 16 miles of road between the Lacelle farm and Cypress Lake, my mobile rang and I was asked for an interview. The person on the other end of the phone was from Radio Canada in Regina. He was a very kind, very nice man named William, from Ottawa originally. We spoke English in our initial conversation. When we switched to French I was nervous. I told him that for me, part of the reason for this pilgrimage is to learn the language of the prairie. He seemed intrigued. What do you mean, the language of the prairie? Words that I grew up learning, I said. Or at least, words I grew up hearing, words I used to know, or that I feel I should know as part of my heritage and patrimony, but don’t remember. For instance, words about animals.
We’ve seen so many different kinds of wildlife, I told him.
Oh yes, he asked? Can you tell me some of what you’ve seen?
That’s when my words – and my memory – failed completely. How do you say badger in French? Or antelope? And while I know the word for deer, I completely mispronounced it. I probably said ‘brain’. Thankfully, William didn’t laugh out loud. As for the birds, for all of the times I’ve asked Hugh or Trevor Herriot for names, I could barely remember a single one we’ve seen. The list of what I forgot is long:
On the open prairie:
Sprague’s Pipit – who make a lovely, downward spiral whistle as they drop; Swainson’s hawk – making a high, plaintive screech as we pass by; Bald eagle – the immature birds looking like golden eagles; Chestnut coloured longspur; Sparrows – who always make me feel at home
In farmyards and old abandoned farmyards:
Great Horned owl – beautiful, and so quiet as they fly; Barn swallows; Nighthawk – thin as a stick, on top of fenceposts; Mourning doves – waking us up in the morning in our tents, just like the city; Magpies – those familiar, raucous scavengers; Ravens; crows
On roadsides, crops and crop borders:
Meadowlark – the beautiful, multifluted song that sounds like the prairie; Horned lark; Blackbirds – with their “chherk, chherk” rough voices; Red-winged blackbird – reminding me of Quebec ditches; Yellow-headed blackbird – a shock when I first saw one; Eastern Kingbird; Western Kingbird; Sharp tailed grouse – thumping away as we walk by; Grey partridge – always a shock to the adrenaline as they wait and then bolt; Lark bunting
On the gravel road:
Kildeer – skinny legs running; Blackbirds – filling their beaks with the black crickets that hop here and there across the dust
So belatedly: there you are, William. Better late than never, I hope. We’ve spent a lot of our time looking up, and looking out, on this pilgrimage. It’s too bad I couldn’t say this for the interview. Like any new language, the language of the prairie takes practice. I can tell I need a lot more practice. I’m glad that there are three more days of land, both crop and pastureland, where I can watch and practice a bit more. (photos courtesy of James Page)
The Surprise Dinner Guest
An example of one of my interviews with a self-professed “old timer”:
My father used to hunt deer year-round. Didn’t care a bit for the hunting licenses. He was a generous man and would hunt deer and give them to all of the neighbours. No one had much money then, so the meat was welcome, but my mother used to fret about his illegal hunting and give him trouble over it. Then one day the policeman came to the door on horseback after a long ride. He was tired and hungry and my father, always hospitable, asked him to stay to eat. Mom had a huge venison roast in the oven. She brought it out and served it, shaking with fear that father would be clapped into jail for poaching. The policeman finished eating, wiped his mouth, said “that was one of the finest beef dinners I’ve ever eaten”, got on his horse, and rode away.
Max Mirau, Swift Current, an old friend of my father’s.
Blue Moon over the Riverside Motel
There’s no better way to reach a destination than to ford a stream and arrive on its banks. Even if you don’t have to. Stew Tasche, writer and producer of “The Cypress Hills will never be the Same”, and his wife Cindy arrived at Chimney Coulee this morning just as we were packing up our tents. They walked with us the short, half-day, five miles into Eastend. It was like Stew knew every inch of the way. “We used to cycle out here and find old NWMP shell cartridges”. “That’s where my uncle lived. The Metis chimneys were still here when I came out to see him.”
When we crested the hill and looked down on wooded Eastend, Hugh asked if we’d like to ford the Frenchman River at the old crossing, rather than walk across the bridge. Since I’ve been looking at that water enviously for days, he didn’t have to ask twice. We inched down the steep incline, came to the water……
“That’s the highest and fastest I’ve seen it in a long time,” Cindy said. Stew agreed. Eventually, probably because he’d suggested it, Stew grabbed a thick pole of a branch and inched across. He was fine and so we followed, one by one. We came to the ranch-house that has been in his family for generations, the first house in Eastend.
And for me, eventually, to the motel, for the first shower in many days, a working toilet, and a cold beer. Ed, one of the owners, was playing blues in the other room when I got to the desk, and couldn’t hear me ring. When he found out I was one of the NWMP walkers, he gave me the family rate. Tonight is Friday night. Tomorrow the SK History and Folklore Society have a number of events scheduled, finishing with a banquet and readings by author Candace Savage. I’m looking forward to meeting this author who has so changed the way I see my prairie homeland. But in the meantime, it’s a blue moon, a very quiet town, and I’m going to sleep comfortable and clean in the Riverside Motel.
Rhubarb Wine among the Saints
Tonight we;re in a grove between caragana hedges, on the Duke farm near Eastend SK. Now that the dark has descended, it feels like a secret, hidden place, with only the sound of cicadas and crickets to accompany my typing. No coyotes as yet, although the moon is full and just waiting for their chorus. The farm is located along the Frenchman River, with the steep walls of the valley rising miles away at either side of a great, wide, flood plain. We walked that plain all day….tawny hills on the left and the right, white mud cliffs that leave your fingers stained, and a river I wanted several times to jump into for some kind of break from the heat. For the first time this trip, we’ve had to contend with mosquitoes, so setting up tents was a hurried affair.
Fortunately, we have a gazebo, and that’s where I shelter to write this. The others have gone to sleep – funny how a full day of walking makes for fatigue as soon as the sun sets. For a late supper we put together Madonna’s lentil soup, Hugh’s beans, Kathryn’s broccoli salad and some British Army ration soup. We ate the resulting mix, out of the pot, with gusto. But the best part of the meal was rhubarb white wine, from the Cypress Hills winery, donated to us by Curt and Lorie Gronhovd, the incredibly kind hosts with whom we stayed last night.
Over dinner (and the wine) we talked about saints and First Nations, about the connection between the Egyptian desert fathers and the Irish monks, and between those monastics and a pilgrimage here and now in south-west Saskatchewan. I guess it’s no mistake that this is, also, a semi-desert that we walk through. Fifteen miles today in land that, like the Biblical wildernesses, reduces the walker to the essentials. When the land is so sparse and the cactus and short grasses (and some cattle skeletons) are all you see, the wind blows and I think of Ezekial calling the four winds at the Lord’s behest, or Christ in the desert. Or Saint-Anthony, seeking white martyrdom in the wilds of Egypt.
Tomorrow we walk to Chimney Coulee, so named for the chimneys left behind by the Métis hivernants who built a settlement there in the mid 1870s. They say there are ghosts there, of the Assiniboine who died scavenging after Cowlie, the Hudson’s Bay trader, hurriedly left in 1873. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow night. For tonight there’s the moon, the mosquitoes, the dark, and the wind through the caraganas. And thoughts of the saints and their time of testing and of encountering the divine in a wilderness not so different from this one.