The Story Pool – Madonna Hamel
One day last fall, just before the rodeo, Eugene came into Prairie Wind for his usual weekend latte and the subject of books came up.
“Do you know what’s in all these?” he asked, waving his hand casually toward the bookstore section of the museum.
“Well now, let’s see: I just finished this one about the formation of Northwest Mounted Police and the Texas Rangers, which was roughly around the same time. The rangers were worn and tired civil war soldiers, the NWMP were servants of the Queen. They had new uniforms and a mandate. But either way it seems the both groups were determined or ordered to diminish the lives of native tribes in order to allow for “progress” … it’s a great read, full of details and anecdotes. … Then, let’s see, I love this one, “Small Beneath the Sky” by Lorna Crozier. In the first three pages you basically have the prairies in a nutshell.”
I flip to the page about light and start reading from half-way down the page: “‘After an hour or two of walking, you are soaked in brightness. When you shake your head and shoulders, you see the spray. If you stay too long in the open, you could drown, its currents carrying you to its source, your body bobbing, then going under, your lungs full of lustre.’ Isn’t that stunning?”
“I guess so,” said Eugene.
“… Oh and listen to the rest: ‘Nowhere else in your travels will you see light so palpable and fierce. It is too huge for dreams, too persistent for solitude. All day long it touches you with the smallest of watery wings.’ Whew! That’s just so beautiful, right?”
“I suppose it is, yep.”
I’m on a roll now, pulling books from the shelves, searching for the lovely bits. “Let’s see… oh yeah, this is an eye-opener,” I start flipping through Candace Savage’s collection of essays “Curious By Nature” until I find what I’m looking for. “Here it is, check this out: ‘Recent estimates suggest that the total weight, or biomass, of all the invisible organisms that live in prairie soils is greater than the mass of all the visible, above-ground animals put together. If all the microflora and all the microfauna from grassland soils could be piled onto one arm of some Great Cosmic Scale, with all the reptiles, mammals and birds from the upper world heaped onto the other pan, the balance would tip sharply toward the soil organisms.’ Did you know that?”
“No I did not.”
I was stopped from pulling another book off the shelf when a couple arrived, ordering coffees and brownies to go. After they left, I beelined for another favourite book when it occurred to me that I had no idea where most of my own favourite books were at home, buried as they were in piles and boxes. I had just recently hauled them from Kelowna, after selling the family home, and stacked them, brick wall style, in my car trunk and all the seats. I had such a hard time letting go of any that, instead, I relinquished pots and pans and quilts and lamps and, to my sister’s dismay, an expensive lettuce-twirler, to make room for them all.
“Really?” she asked, “you couldn’t have stuffed a couple of books in the twirler?”
“You know what Eugene, I need bookshelves.”
“Oh yeah.” Gene can see what’s coming: another local hoping do score a little carpentry favour. So I offered to do the building if he could just supervise.
“ You mean ‘teach’?” he says. “Hell, that’ll take way longer than if I just build them myself.”
And it did. Not to mention the stress of making sure I held the router even and didn’t skewer my thumb with the nail gun. But in the end we got ‘er done, as they say, and I had three new shelves I made all by myself. For the most part. And a year’s-worth of tip money went to Eugene for supplies and tutoring and taking over when disaster loomed.
When we finally installed the beautiful tailor-made new shelves into my apartment I realized I’d turned a corner: you don’t install shelving if you’re not intending to stay for a while. But dang it if books didn’t fill my need for engagement, communion, and relationship the way human beings do. They can’t challenge me the way I need to be challenged, directly or indirectly whenever I come up against someone else’s world view, or style of communication. They don’t give me a chance to see if in fact I am the person I claim to be.
You hear people say things like: the more I get to know people, the more I prefer my dog. But that’s just another way to avoid seeing oneself mirrored back at you through your responses to the human world. Humans are not going to come running back, panting for more, willing to forget everything for a handful of doggie treats. When we yell at or ridicule or ignore people there will be consequences and out of those consequences is either an opportunity to behave differently next time, or a festering resentment leading to a low-grade, relentless dark mood. The bond gets either strengthened or broken.
But still, when I behave badly and I slump back home to nurse my wounds, I just feel better being surrounded by my books full or tales, poems, teachings, centuries of human histories written by people who have made the same blunders as I, ever since the dawn of humankind. I open to a psalm or story and I find solace.
When our ancestors came west they left almost everything behind, but they did not part with their books. The memoir “Chronicle of a Pioneer Family” by Leslie H. Neatby hit home for me the importance of books for immigrating families from across the Atlantic. Andrew Neatby left his medical practice in London in 1906 and took his wife and eight children to farm in Watrous, Sask.. All they took with them were their clothes, a few tools, Neatby’s medical satchel and three thousand books! They missed spring planting that year because the boys were busy ferrying books to the homestead instead.
Still, they were read to every evening from the likes of “The Boy’s Annual,” Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, Joseph Conrad, and Jack London. “Spiritually we found our salvation in literature of all sorts,” wrote Neatby. “Our father’s exertions in this field atoned in no small degree for his shortcomings out-of-doors. He taught me to read, and with an understanding far beyond that of the modern peddler of educational science, kept on reading aloud to me for some time after. The drama and emphasis of his rendering enlarged my comprehension, whetted my appetite for private reading, and gave me a sense of style and of the power of diction.”
In James Gray’s “The Winter Years” he writes about farms reduced to drought and pestilence in western Canada and his own reduced existence, standing in line for relief vouchers in Winnipeg, picking dandelions in the park for food. “To be a newspaper reader anywhere in western Canada during the depression required a masochistic streak a foot wide,” he wrote. People closed the newspapers and opened books. Libraries were full of frozen souls, searching for warmth, yes, but also eager to find both solutions and escape. “People were reading as never before. They may have fallen asleep over books and magazines that were beyond their understanding, but they were searching for a sign, a light to guide them out of their personal wilderness.”
In “Remembering the Farm,” by Allan Anderson, a collection of memories of Canada’s farming and ranching life of the past, one interviewee talks about a box of Boy’s Own Annual books passed on from a neighbour. As a boy he would study all the instructions for making things and playing games. He decided he’d learn how to swim from one of the books and practiced, as instructed, by laying on his stomach on a bench and doing the various strokes and kicks. When the family finally went for a picnic at a nearby pond he jumped in, expecting, as the book promised, “he would find to his delight that he could swim.” He nearly drowned. He concluded: “one has to practise in the medium.”
When I was subletting a room in Toronto one year, my friend and landlady quipped: “Your bed is like your castle, and all your books surrounding it are a moat!” Coming to Val Marie has forced me to let down the drawbridge. I can keep my moat, but I’m learning that my search for authenticity is not found in books. It doesn’t even involve a search. It simply requires tying on my boots and walking out into the world, ready to greet whatever the land and creatures have to offer. I need to walk the Book of Dirt. To feel I belong in the world, I need to ‘practise’ being in the world. Then, perhaps, to my delight, I will find that I can love.