markers on the way

NWMP patrol trail marker. Val Marie, Saskatchewan. 49°14'48

NWMP patrol trail marker. Val Marie, Saskatchewan. 49°14’48” N 107°41’57” W

There were times, walking, where I forgot about our guides on the trail – the North West Mounted Police  markers that Everett Baker put up in 1960 and 61. After all, that was over 50 years ago. Even eight foot concrete posts don’t always last that long, when neglected. We couldn’t always find them. Sometimes they’d been knocked down by cattle or vandalized. And sometimes, to avoid walking on crop, or because they haven’t been seen for decades, we just couldn’t find them. But Hugh, who is responsible for the posts on behalf of the SK History and Folklore Society, always had them in mind. In our three weeks of walking we found about 25 that were not on their maps or databases. Every time Hugh would kneel by the post and get the GPS coordinates for their survey. More than once he looked like an old-time pilgrim, kneeling at a roadside shrine. Which, in a sense, those posts are.

The magnificent post photos were taken by Branimir Gjetvaj, whose photography website is http://www.branimirphoto.ca. The photo of Hugh kneeling is mine.

Hugh kneeling before marker

NWMP patrol trail marker. Val Marie, Saskatchewan. 49°15'43

NWMP patrol trail marker. Val Marie, Saskatchewan. 49°15’43” N 107°46’39” W

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

Prejudice and the Land

sage and grasslands best

There’s a whole vocabulary that I’m learning on this pilgrimage – a language that maybe I should have learned when I lived here, but never did. Lots of farmers and ranchers know this language. Hugh knows it. It’s the vocabulary of place, of the creatures and growing things on this tawny plain.

I have a beginner’s knowledge. I know words like meadowlark and magpie, speargrass and mule deer. But there’s so much more to know. Lark bunting. Buck brush. Short-horned lizard. Swainson’s hawk. The various geographical formations. Any of the myriad of songbirds that fly up as we approach.

Trevor Herriot read from his book at our Val Marie event tonight. We had a great crowd, including friends who drove down all the way from Saskatoon to be there. Trevor emphasized that growing to love something is learning the words that describe its complexity and colour. It’s just natural to give words to what we respect and care for.

I have body, movement and narrative on this trek – now I need words to describe the terrain (my pilgrimage class students know this quartet very well). It has always seemed to me that prejudice between people most often arises from ignorance, and is most often solved when we really get to know someone from that “other” group. Maybe it’s the same with land. Our ignorance can lead to a kind of unconscious prejudice against the very earth that sustains us. Walking, and watching, and learning, mean we become friends. Like the young woman I interviewed tonight who is living three months in a teepee, as did her Métis grandfather. “In a teepee,” she told me, “I’m not shutting out nature or inspecting it like some kind of outsider. A prairie dog burrowed up under my bed frame the other night. Nature is coming to inspect me, sometimes literally, and is welcoming me.”