“You’re starting to sound like a curmudgeon,” my sister warned, laughing at my latest rant.
I’d been going on about how entitlement and the culture of “instant” everything, from food to information to pseudo intimacy, has created a bunch of softies. Myself included.
“I know! But I’m reading all these amazing memoirs of homesteaders and ranchers and trappers and explorers and I seriously can’t imagine I could have survived the deprivations.”
“Oh I don’t know Maddy, you lived out of your car for six years. And at 58 you finally own a washer and drier-“
“Okay, ‘rent’. And your shoes are basically held together with duct tape.”
“Not so! Look at these!” I held up my foot to show her a pair of spanking new water-resistant re-enforced heel cross trainers. “Mind you, I never paid for these.” There was a film crew staying at The Convent Inn, where I was living at the time as their artist-in-residence. I was in the kitchen making my supper one evening when the costume and make-up woman peeked in and asked if it would possible for her to make a cup of tea. She looked shaken, exhausted.
I assumed it was just the nature of the job, but when she began weeping she apologized, saying: “ I’m sorry. My dad just died. And I just can’t seem to hold it together.” I knew that feeling, the random bouts of deep grief, the need for company unfazed by the up-swell of emotion – people who suggest that you are ‘perfectly capable of falling apart’.
“Maybe ‘holding it together’ is not what’s called for at this moment,” I said. “Maybe you need to respect the moment and just let ‘er rip!” Which is exactly what she did.
At the end of the week she was loading up her car and she called me over and held up a pair of brand new hiking boots. “What size are your feet?”
Next time you see a SaskTourism ad with a beautiful young couple ascending 70 Mile Butte at sunset, then snuggling under the starry heavens, look at her feet. Those are my shoes now!
A couple of weeks ago I did a little performance about my apron collection and collage exhibit at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage here in Val Marie. One of the stories came from a piece called “Sorry. Go Back. Will Pay.” It referred to a ‘mail order bride’, who, upon arrival, received a telegram from her betrothed who had changed his mind upon seeing her. At the bottom of the collage I wrote the quote: “I Stayed Anyway.” That comment cheered people considerably, especially young women. But it also explains an entire culture of homesteaders who ‘proved up’, cultivated the land, stayed on and made smooth the way for the rest of us.
I am not oblivious to the fact that ‘made smooth’ also refers to how ‘clearing the plains’ involved the deaths and subjugations of thousands of aboriginal peoples. If anybody is oblivious to that fact, they’ve made a choice to avoid that uncomfortable truth and need to read James Daschuk’s “Clearing the Plains.” The politics behind starving out entire tribes in order to push through the railway, and push out American cattle ranchers looking to Canada for good grazing land, was not what homesteaders were supporting when they came looking for a home. They were looking for a place to stay.
Staying anyway, sticking through the hard times, making do, doing without, jerry-rigging, trouble-shooting, recycling, re-using, re-inventing – these are all terms that would apply to the lives of the early homesteaders and ranchers. And they still apply to them today. I’ve stood in awe watching ranchers fix a broken down piece of machinery in the middle of nowhere, pulling out tools that look like old torture devices, grabbing a rock to hammer something in place.
I was on a tour of Ervin’s land the other day (cut short by my inadvertent locking of the truck doors with keys still inside). Ervin taught me how to horseshoe and two-step and now he’s teaching me about the territory. I was talking about Clifford Sifton’s 1896 push to get settlers into the West through deceptive and selective advertising. The first collage of the series was an attempt to reproduce the old immigration posters hanging in the Emigration Office windows in London and the ‘propaganda’ paintings done by emigration boosters. Both depicted happy faces turned toward the sun shining gently down upon verdant hills and valleys, gargantuan gardens and cozy cottages. I included a quote from a CPR journalist: “All references to ‘cold’ or ‘dry’ were banned.” The journalists could ride the new train for free, but of course there were strings attached. They were expected to support the government’s drive to bring settlers in under less than honest pretenses.
I was rattling on and on in the way that I can when perceiving an injustice or opportunity for righteous indignation, Ervin politely listening. Finally, he said: “You know, Madonna, I never heard a word from the old guys and their stories about coming here – or their parents coming over – and complaining about being sold a bad bill of goods. Partly because what they were coming from was much worse. They may not have known what they were getting, but they sure as hell knew what they were leaving. They just got down to work. They wanted their own land and a home. The only boss they had was Nature itself.”
Obviously I have more research to do. And evidently I won’t be getting it all from books.
The young woman who was jilted at the train station went on to work at the local boarding house, a refuge for many an abandoned soul, male and female. She cooked and cleaned and in the evening she read to lodgers sitting, and no doubt, sleeping, in the parlour. And the man who had second thoughts? He was a Mountie who ‘married’ a native woman. He was a rancher before he was a Mountie and ‘more like an Indian’, he said. He needed to move.
This, too, is the story of our country. It is certainly a huge part of my own. One glance at the family tree on my mother’s side, the Morin side, and you’ll find a trader or coureur-de-bois hanging off a branch with his native wife by his side, identified merely as a ‘femme suavage’. He a roamer, she a hunter-gatherer, meanderers both, living a lifestyle threatening to the new civilized values of order and structure reflected in grid roads, train tracks and farm fences. “We need to keep moving and not in straight lines. We will adapt, but not to ravage with that bloody plow,” swears the ex-rancher Mountie.
But of course, in savage weather and an endless horizon as vast as the open ocean with few fixed markers, the structured order of grids and fences were often a necessary evil. And Ervin’s voice is there again, reminding me that “You could assume people here are rigid and don’t like change, but we see more change than most. Out here life is all about change.” Stability, Security, Consistency, Structure – they may sound like stodgy conservative values for curmudgeons, but they are necessary gifts, the absence of which make living out here impossible.
If you’ve never lived exposed to the elements as the homesteaders and ranchers did, and still do to a great degree, it’s hard to really understand how sudden or random changes are rarely welcome. But all it takes is one wrong-place-wrong-time moment to drive home the lesson. For me it was the morning in late November two years ago when I went for a long walk on the land behind The Crossing. The temperature dropped and it occurred to me I’d better turn and head back because my fingers and toes were getting a little frosty. People had warned me not to go too far. But my response was: ‘Hey, I lived in Quebec City for twelve years, I know about cold!’ But this is not an urban reality I live in. There is not a bar, café, bookstore, or library to duck into to thaw the extremities or get something hot in your belly. You can’t call a friend to come and get you, because you are somewhere inaccessible to both vehicles – and cell service! As my digits began losing feeling I resorted to pouring the last of my coffee over my hands.
Out here, there’s a way of life worth preserving and conserving. Unnecessary change, or change for change’s sake, is understandably suspect. You do your best to keep what you can before the wind, rain or sun blows, washes or dries it away. And when it does, you have something to hold onto, so you can stay anyway.
Madonna Hamel is an artist and writer. She lives in Val Marie, SK. She works at the Harvest Moon Café and the local eco-museum and as a freelance writer-broadcaster for CBC radio. On Aug. 3 she performed at the Val Marie Hotel from her collection of stories based on her PWSS exhibit, ‘My Mother’s Apron,’ including three new songs.
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