My Corner of Gloryland

 John Golling (Grandpa) as young man 1          farm-2-new-homeland

This week I’ve been seeing some of the old photos of my grandparents and their parents before them, and hearing stories of the first European settlers on this prairie. My grandparents, like most of their neighbors, were hard-scrabble, tough immigrants. Before electricity, before water lines, before roads even, they came. They came for the promise of land. Most of them were not as romantic about the countries they had left as we, their grandchildren, are. After all, they’d made the decision to go. In the words sung by Archie and the Boys (see below), the old time band that played today at my father’s care home in Herbert SK, they wanted, not the old, but the new: their own ‘piece of gloryland’. And the Government of Canada was happy to promise it to them.

The posters advertising the new homeland, however, neglected to mention that there were already people living here. The nomadic First Nations and mobile Metis were not used to, nor invited into, this new world of fences and property title and cattle rather than bison. A combination of starvation and forced removal cleared the land of Aboriginal peoples so that my grandparents – more fortunate pawns, but pawns nonetheless – in a continental political-economic development scheme, could take their place.

Did it turn out to be Gloryland? Saskatchewan is a great place. But we are all – First Nations and settlers alike, but particularly First Nations, still feeling the aftershocks of that great removal. To me, the posters advertising a new homeland in the Canadian West for European immigrants aren’t just art. They’re chilling propoganda.

(Photo is of John Samuel Golling, my grandfather. Thanks to Archie and the Boys for their music and their permission to post!)

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

Lac Pelletier memories

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It’s January in Toronto, a glacial wind in your face, a cloudy, gritty, dirty-snow winter day. Somewhere in the middle of the never-ending curtain of noise that always plays in a city, one sound in particular sits up in my hearing, calling for attention. It’s a motor gurgling. Eventually I notice. Where have I heard that before?

And then, without any more thinking, I hear what, in downtown Toronto in January, that sound most certainly CANNOT be. I hear a boat’s outboard as you pull up to the dock, the propeller free-wheeling in neutral just before it turns off.

Standing in my parka, hearing that sound, I’m instantly transported. Somehow I’m back to a warm summer evening decades ago. I feel the light gold-gilded across Lac Pelletier and the twilight heavy with insects. I’m sitting on a boat rocking gently in the water, ready to take out the last skiiers of the day. Our voices are quiet, the lake unnaturally calm, as if it’s waiting. My shirt off, as it has been all day. Mind empty of anything but the moment, my only teen-age responsibility making sure there’s gas for the motor. Never knowing such a clarity of existence would be what would pull the older me back, so many decades later, on a cold and snowy afternoon, for an envious peek.

So far from North York Mills. Our memories are time machines. But they’re touchy ones, triggered by who knows what and when, here and gone again, taking us where they want us to go.

Soon Enough

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The few lights that are on in my apartment this January 1 evening don’t so much illuminate it as provide a counterpoint to the darkness. There are candles here and there, gusts of winter wind at the door. We are at the change of years, a liminal moment, a threshold time. Folks don’t go out much today. Everyone prefers to stay at home with soup, maybe a movie. It’s quiet on my street. My boots, recently repaired, sit at the door. Soon enough, we tell ourselves.

This year will be, I hope, a good year for pilgrimage. I’ve heard from Concordia University that the Vieux Montreal – Kahnawake student walk that’s part of our Department’s summer-term class on Pilgrimage will most likely be accepted for what’s called the “FundOne” initiative. That means that Concordia will advertise our 34-km pilgrimage for crowd funding, to help pay the costs of the students. Old Montreal is so close to the Mohawk territory, and yet so far away. If you’d like to contribute something to help this worthwhile walk, there will be a chance!

Our own conference will take place May 8-9 at Concordia, under the title “Indigenizing Pilgrimage”. This doesn’t mean only Aboriginal and First People’s pilgrimage, although it certainly includes that. It will be about ALL the ways we can, and should, from Sussex to Saskatchewan, connect our intentional, transformative journey to the actual physical places through which we move. Sara and Christine and I managed to get both of the keynote speakers we had dreamt of having – Raymond Aldred, a Treaty Eight Cree and professor in Calgary, and Simon Coleman, a pioneer pilgrimage scholar and professor at the U of T. It will be a great event.

And in July, if all goes well, I will be walking, together with Hugh Henry of the SK History and Folklore Society, and some – how many? – others, 300 km across the southern plains and low hills of Saskatchewan, tracing with our feet the North West Mounted Police Trail. Raymond Aldred has said of the First Nations’ need to recover their past that “when you have no history you have no future.” I am hoping that it is equally true of those of us who are from settler stock, that when we re-visit, re-walk, and remember our past in a new way, particularly by remembering the generations of ill treatment of First Peoples, we might also re-imagine and re-create our future together in new ways as well.

There is another gust of wind at the door. It is winter in Canada/Turtle Island, but that doesn’t keep the pilgrimages from beginning. I’m feeling the itch to walk.

 

 

 

 

The Watchful Trees

up close painting

The Watchful Trees (Ode to a Prairie Birch Wood)

Matthew Anderson Nov 2014

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I could lose myself here.

Paper-bark peeling

white bone from the green,

your quiet, revealing

what I might have to mean.

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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.

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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)

Prairie Spring

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Maybe it’s because it’s so hard-won. Spring on the prairies is a celebration, or perhaps better, the hush before the celebration. When I stepped out of the car I could hear a meadowlark somewhere, and almost nothing else, except the wind rustling winter’s bones. There is something both calming and sobering about a landscape where human beings have so little say. Ronald Wright, in his book “A Short History of Progress” tells us that however we pride ourselves in our technological prowess, nature always wins. On one of the first days of spring on the Canadian prairies, it’s easy to see his point.

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Those Surprising Vikings

At the Anderson family reunion I attended years ago, when the heavy-set, ruddy blonde prairie farmers I’m from passed me a 24 of beer and told me I have Viking blood coursing through my veins, I don’t think they realised how confusing that could be. Now, having fought my way through several books and a couple of BBC documentaries on the subject, I’m less sure than ever.

 

What’s a descendent of those who were the scourge of Europe through the not-so-dark Dark Ages to do? We’re having a full-blown identity crisis. The wonderful, recently released History channel series “Vikings” takes some of the usual turns (rough and ready adventurers with lots of facial hair – at least, the men. Blood and gore. Plenty of sex). And yet, despite some caricatures, the greater truth the series portrays is this: it turns out that being a Viking meant above all being, believe it or not, complex.

 

If only we’d thought about it, we’d have suspected the former “pillage and plunder” paradigm too simple to be true. How could a small band of tattooed berserkers really be responsible not only for the sack of monasteries and cities all over northern Europe (and as far as Byzantium), but also for positive changes: the design of beautiful and advanced sea- and river-craft, the exploration of waters as far as North America, a fashion craze in costume jewelry – then, not now – the minting of coinage, and a process of urbanization that led to the establishment of quite a number of NEW cities? And why should small farmers who only wanted gold and slaves have become quite so good at setting out grid-lines and building churches? It may be a surprise to the neo-pagan “revivalists” to find out – should they ever care to – that the various hyphenated Scandinavians of the British Isles and Normandy were in part responsible for the 11th century re-flowering of Christianity.

 

My Norse relatives will hear more about this as I travel through Ireland and Norway on pilgrimage this summer. But the first to be surprised is me: I thought I had my ancestors pegged. It turns out they were more than just a hardy lot. They were often violent warriors of fortune, yes. But just as often, many of them were travelers and settlers, artists and urban planners, the pious and the pilgrims of their days. Learning as they traveled. That latter part doesn’t just sound like a heritage. That sounds like a plan.

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The Most Beautiful Thing

South SK River Nov 2012

This is a radio drama I wrote some years ago, that was produced and broadcast by CBC Radio One in the 1990s. It was one of the winners of a “radio drama” script competition….back in the days when there was much more radio drama! My thanks to the actors and the director who made the script come alive. I’m glad to find a home for this piece here on Something Grand. The radio play is 14 minutes long, and you listen by clicking on the title below. I hope you enjoy it!

The Most Beautiful Thing Radio Drama

The Cowichan Sweater

The Cowichan Sweater

Over a quarter-century ago, before they came back into fashion, my father was throwing out some of his clothes. One of the items was a Siwash sweater he’d worn in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If you’re unfamiliar with the term Siwash, they are also called “Cowichan” sweaters, after a style developed by the indigenous peoples of south-east Vancouver island (see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cowichan_knitting).

Truth be told, back then I wasn’t sure what I thought about the sweater. I’d only ever seen “old people” wear them – and most of those old folks were curlers at that. But the sweater was hand-made, and hand-made for my father with images of his 1950s construction vehicles on it, which to me made all the difference. So I saved the piece, and had it resized for my smaller frame by a kind elderly neighbour. Then I put it in a box for almost thirty years, only taking it out occasionally.

This last week I put the sweater on. My father has been wheelchair-bound for a long time. He’s lost weight – a lot of weight, and the sweater that I had made smaller would now be much too big for him in turn. I wear it, not in Saskatchewan where it came from, but in Montreal, where, for at least the moment, and for certain groups of students such sweaters are all the rage (not being the pinnacle of style, I may have missed ‘the moment’ even as I report it!).

But this was more an act of memory and legacy. When I put on the Cowichan this last week, I felt connected across the decades to the man my father was. Don’t ask me exactly how this works. But to feel the wool across my shoulders makes me realize how he and I are connected. We are very different men, in very different times and places. But as he passes 80, and suffers so badly from crippling Parkinson’s, I wear the sweater and wonder: “what was he thinking when he wore this?” “How did he look at the world?” “Did he have any idea what lay ahead?” He would have been a younger man than I am now. But the wearing connects me to him, and to that wild, open country from which both he and I come.

We can talk all we want about memory being a mental process, but in families as in religion there’s something important about the totem, the symbol, the revered object. There’s something special in taking an object into our hands and letting the memories enter us through our skin.

This last week my daughter, who has been eying one of my own sweaters, came out of her room one morning before school. “I’ve got nothing to wear,” said the young woman who has drawer after drawer of clothing spilling over. “Could I wear that sweater of yours?” She had a sparkle in her eye.

It’s all about connection. I just might ask my grown sons if they have anything I can borrow.