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Learning a Language

looking up for the bird

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)

Swainsons Hawk

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The Surprise Dinner Guest

Max Mirau with Hugh and Matthew

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.

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Blue Moon over the Riverside Motel

arrival Jack's cafe

blue moon over main street

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.

blue moon over the Riverside Motel

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Rhubarb Wine among the Saints

cactus on the plain

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.

rhubarb wine

whitemud

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May 23 a red-serge letter day

NWMP trek

May 23, 1873, the Dominion of Canada created the North West Mounted Police. Many were misfits. Quite a number of the first recruits were sent home, some went home when they saw the conditions. But they proved themselves, acting bravely, often honourably and occasionally even nobly, despite bureaucratic bungling and sometimes terrible direction from a far-away government.

The NWMP were poorly equipped, fitted out with red coats (Macdonald didn’t want the Americans to think they were a military unit, but rather a police force), and had to go through the States to get to their Canadian posts, because there was no railroad. Their first task was to trek to the North West Territories so recently acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to take advantage of the temporary power vacuum in the west created by the American Civil War’s effects, to seal the border against the United States (a number of the American “wolfers” were themselves Civil War vets and perhaps sufferers from what we would now call PTSD). They were to gain the trust of the First Nations, which they for the most part did, a trust that their political masters later occasionally asked them to betray, a turnaround that deeply disappointed and forever marked some of the first recruits.

Canada would not be the country it is without the red coats. But we could do a lot of learning from their first years, still. Or again.

govt sign three

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Dream-walking the Trail

NWMP trail map Eastend

This week I sat down and traced a trail across southern Saskatchewan. I had help: two photocopied RM (rural municipality) maps provided by Hugh Henry of the SK Historical and Folklore Society. For a few hours over a couple of glasses of good Spanish wine I guess-timated how far we could walk in a day, where we might stop, where there might be abandoned farmyards or churches with outhouses, where we could park an RV and when we might hit a small town where there would be showers. Then I sent the schedule off to Hugh, who with his better knowledge of the land made some important corrections, and suggested places where we might need horses to scout the trail ahead of us.

Wow. Just having the 20 day schedule in front of me makes this summer’s walk seem so much more real. Outside it was -19 in urban Verdun. But in my mind’s eye the prairie grass waved, the heat beat down on us, and we looked for miles and miles over rolling prairie toward Val Marie, or Mankota, or Eastend.

“Build it and they will come” are the famous words from Shoeless Joe, Kinsella’s novel, also about the plains, that became “Field of Dreams”. We are building it, step by step, in our imaginations. We will see when, and how, we actually walk this path of dreams.

NWMP Trail general

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The Watchful Trees

up close painting

The Watchful Trees (Ode to a Prairie Birch Wood)

Matthew Anderson Nov 2014

++

I could lose myself here.

Paper-bark peeling

white bone from the green,

your quiet, revealing

what I might have to mean.

++

Here the dead are not buried.

It’s all boom and bust.

A hardy, short-lived pioneer species

is what they call us.

Come to break the treaties.

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My leaving stopped the dying.

It stanched the blood-flow.

You were rooted, you had to stay,

I learned to fly; I had to go.

At least if they ask, that’s what I’ll say.

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I’ll tell them the story

of how hard you grew me up,

my birthright a knife,

instead of a cup.

Sharpened steel to hold close, in case of real life.

++

I could lose myself here.

Your paper-bark peeling

back ghosts and regrets. Such blood in this place.

Your quiet, revealing,

what I still have to face.

(painting by Janice Donato)

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Two Smooth Stones

photo

I have in my jacket pocket two smooth stones – river pebbles, worn by years of exposure first to running water, and then to wind, snow, rain and sun. When I picked them up they were still so warm from the late autumn Saskatchewan sun that I could put my hand in my pocket and feel the warmth lingering there.

The stones come from the foot of the first concrete marker in the North West Mounted Police Trail. It was at the Wood Mountain historical site, site of the Wood Mountain trading post, and of the original boundary survey camp. It’s a three-hour drive south and east of Regina, on increasingly small roads, where I met local historian and NWMPT curator Hugh Henry.

Technically, the young, untested recruits from Ontario started further east. In their second-hand gear and with their quick training , they were so poorly-equipped for the harsh environment facing them that by the time they reached Wood Mountain they’d already see a number of their horses die and had been beaten down by storm, swamp, and pest. Jim Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, told me how the SK First Nations still recount how the NWMP recruits contracted lice and fleas so badly that they had to teach them how to take off their clothes and put them onto ant hills where the ants could eat the lice and thus relieve the young military force. The thought of the future red-coated pride of Canada buck-naked on the open prairie on their first expedition west to “save” the Indians says a lot about how our history needs to be revisited.

Between Hugh Henry, Jim Daschuk, Kathy Grant, Brenda Peterson and others I learned a lot about the NWMP trail this visit. I’m hoping that some of us will walk the trail in the next year or two, not just to commemorate the brave and young Ontario men who came west, but also the Metis, and First Nations peoples who were there already to meet them, who had walked the trail, and who would soon be pushed off the very land they then called their own.