By Madonna Hamel
The idea of the earth as a living creature is not new. It just keeps coming back round again, especially when the creature disappears. Something you assumed would always be there is suddenly gone and you start talking like a jilted lover, singing the blues: “You never miss your water til your well runs dry”. Then you are begging for even a drop. You feel compelled to find new ways of conveying the loss, the urgency and an implacable need. You try to convince the beloved to return, at the same time, warn the young not to be so foolish as to let this happen to them.
I am staring at an empty bottle of beer. I’ve been hanging onto it for months now. It comes from a microbrewery in Victoria, B.C. The back label on the bottle reads: “Brewed to honour Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine Abbess, composer and writer who is considered the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Her treatise on medicine, Physica Sacra, contains the first recorded use of hops as a preservative in beer.” My friend Page saved the bottle to share with me, partly because he knew I was a fan of Hildegard of Bingen, partly because, at 6.5 per cent and 650 ml, it packs a wallop, or as the label also says: “is generously hopped for Hildegard.”
But mostly Page wanted to share the brew because of the name of the beer: Naughty Nun. Personally, I think they should have replaced the “N” with an “H”. Hildegard was beyond naughty, she was downright dangerous, and extremely ahead of her time. Her music, her mandalas, her books and, especially her long admonishing letters to the bishop of the time, packed a wallop befitting her beer. To call her “naughty” in today’s popular cultural lingo conjures up “bad girls” trying to prove themselves as freed from the forces of a world bent on repressing their sexuality, yet still using the language of shame co-opted by those same forces, among them a multi-billion dollar porn industry, claiming it promotes “sexual freedom”.
Hildegard was “a grown woman”, not a “bad girl” or a “naughty nun”. She was too busy and far too ahead of her time to worry about whether the church was pleased with her. In fact, her refusal to obey her bishop’s order to remove the body of “a revolutionary young man” – revolutionary because he got in touch with his own “Sacred Masculine”- from the cemetery of her monastery. Today that “Sacred Masculine” has been described by a Native American elder, using the works of Hildegard in prisons, as “getting in touch with a man’s nobility”.
Like her namesake beer, Hildegard’s body of work packs a wallop. She was talking “green” back in the 12th century, long before the ecology movements of the 20th century. Her spirituality was an antidote to the pinched, dry spirituality of a remote God. She used the word “Viriditas” to describe the animating life force manifest in the burgeoning green world: “that sacred power infusing all creation with moisture and vitality”. To her, the divine manifested to the ground, below ground, even.
Present day eco-theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson uses the term “Deep Incarnation”. Hildegard urged us to see and hear the “Invisible” and the “Ineffable Creator in the guise of Creation”, but Elizabeth says: don’t stop at planet Earth; it is present to us as the entire cosmos. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this new way of seeing: the cosmos as not evidence of God, it is God.
It’s at moments such as these I need to shut the books, walk away from the computer and go for a walk. Here, with the wild all around me in the form of native grasslands, and the high chance of encountering wildlife in the form of coyote, bird, buck or bison, a walk always renders up wonder and awe.
Looking at my notebooks from my first November here, when I was house-sitting at The Crossing I found: “I was trudging through the grasslands behind The Crossing, following a draw that led me through thistle and dock and every shade and style of grass in colours mustard, burgundy, rust, dusty grey, warm sage, against blue sky and the iridescent greens, pinks, oranges of lichen on every rock, some with tatted lace borders, baroque frames, the shapes of candlesticks or eastern mosques, patterns that called to mind the raised velvet wallpaper inside the train they call The City of New Orleans, or the red-gold wallpaper in our first home, or those 1970s couches covered in rust and brown blooms. Design and art imitates wild-life, yet how many artists have seen it with their own eyes?”
That day I took lots of earth “cleavage” pictures- calling them: “those places where there’s a joining, an enfolding, or dovetailing of hillocks into each other. I realize so much of what absorbs me has to do with re-picturing the form of woman, and by extension the earth as the curved and fecund and eros-filled matter she is, naturally resisting possession with the intent to subdue or denigrate… I take my cues from the spirit of place, animating it, keeping it alive.”
Nearly three years later, I realize that there are many people, most of them ranchers, who contribute to keeping the place as it has been from the beginning. Their primary intent may not be to “protect the native prairie for future generations to appreciate and enjoy, as well as for its own intrinsic worth”, as many of my ecologist friends would say. But, ranchers, from the beginning, have lived close to a nomadic life, in the sense that they do not plot their land into grids and rows, but keep it as wild as possible to allow their animals to roam and graze. And, because preservation is woven into lifestyle and livelihood, they are often stunned and irritated by folks who arrive from urban environs, from time to time, warning them of the eco-disasters they apparently are party to.
I can only say that, after my brief residency here, watching and sometimes even having the rare chance to participate in the daily and seasonal duties of ranch people, I sure as hell wouldn’t appreciate strangers with nine to five jobs in cities telling me how to conduct my job. In fact, I’d probably resent the hell out of them because when’s the last time they got up at 3 a.m. to check on an animal in labour, or led a herd home in dense fog or a blinding blizzard? When’s the last time they got up at 6 a.m., day in and day out, all winter long, to break through the ice and free up drinking water? When’s the last time they lost their entire year’s salary because of a drop in the market due to a health scare? Or had to downsize because there was nobody interested in being an apprentice to a way of life that pretty much guaranteed they would also have to drive truck or have a spouse who worked at a desk job? Or had to hear tourists “tsk tsk” the size of their herd when anything smaller meant going in the black? Or had to decide to just not say anything because the idea of, once again defending yourself in your own territory, just isn’t worth the hassle?
I don’t know enough to pontificate, although that never stopped me before. But I live here now. I’m not just passing through, spending my summer vacation “getting touch with nature”. When someone like Ervin tells me: “You know, the grasslands have always been here. We didn’t grow it for cattle to graze. We brought cattle here because there was grass – grass inedible for human consumption,” I just shut up and listen, if only because I’m tired of having to remove my foot from my mouth.
I love driving on Highway 4, despite its spontaneous potholes, broken shoulders and sudden bucklings. I love it mostly between Val Marie and Cadillac, the wild side of the highway, because, as Tony Lacelle of the locally famous Lacelle brothers reminds me: “This whole stretch is one of the last living, true western landscapes.” The grasses, the hills, the endless wild gives me a glimpse of a time before I was born, even before my mother was born here. It’s remoteness is part of its magic. It touches that inherently “wild” animal (not “naughty”) inside me that Hildegard wrote about in the 1100’s, and contemporary ecologists and proponents of the “re-wilding” movement often forget because they dwell in urban spaces full of imposed grids and cement edifices and parking lots paved over paradise. It is my “daily reminder”, as J.D. McKinnon writes in “The Once and Future World”, “Of life on earth, of natural cycles and of the fact that we do not need only to re-wild nature, but human nature, as well.”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.