By Madonna Hamel
Ordering books for Prairie Wind & Silver Sage is one of my new duties. Evenings at home I flip through new book lists like a visionary gardener on a winter night, ooh-ing and awe-ing at the new varieties and blooms in seed catalogues. I am looking for stories related to the territory, of the lives of the men and women who landed here, shaken to the core by the life they left behind: from abject poverty to a Bolshevik revolution, from a failed career in a dirty burgeoning city to a yearning for a break from the yoke of a strict and harsh religion, parents or class system. Stories of brave souls willing to see this vast emptiness as not at all empty, but full of promise and sky.
I’m looking for stories of and by the people who were here before us, who are indigenous to place, native to soil, brothers and sisters to every living creature. And thankfully the new catalogues are replete with their truths: from witness impact statements to historical records to personal memoirs not yet rendered to the page. I look for stories that do not relegate First nations to second class citizens, nor as part of a country separate from us, although our reservations system says we’d prefer it that way. I look for the reality that “Indians” weren’t just here for the first few centuries before we moved in and took over, but continue to live- and die- alongside us. I look for stories that neither romanticize nor denigrate any or all of us. Which is not to say we can’t sometimes act nobly or savagely; which dares to say that we’ve all wanted to get to a safe and reflective place inside ourselves that allows for an inner urge to reconcile differences.
I look for the poets who are willing to address “the power of place and the problem of time” -a term I’ve taken from the title of a library book I’m presently reading with the subtitle: Aboriginal Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Cauldron of Colonialism (the author, argues that actions events and happenings and the relationship between the place and time wherein the actions, events and happenings take place “become central to maintaining shared notions of collective identity”). I appreciate anthropological treatise on treaties, but I am searching for the poets who speak directly from the heart who reveal to us our common humanity while acknowledging our individual identities.
One book I continue to order and lift from the shelf every time someone comes searching for something that addresses the territory is Lorna Crozier’s “Small Beneath the Sky”. I flip to the dedication page that includes part of a poem from John Newlove called The Green Plain. The land, he says, awaits, “like a tree in southern Saskatchewan, remarked on, lonely and famous as a saint”. How many of us have seen that lonely tree on a ridge? I can think of one on my way out of town, just before the curvaceous bend in the road rising gently to the Hillandale turnoff. And then my favourite, once again, just before another turnoff, this one to West Flat Road, a tree that leans toward travelers and on windy night sways and is lit by headlights and makes me think of a sea fan, fluidly dipping back and forth, under water, under what was once The Bear Paw Sea. Yes, I think, lone trees are saints, although others may not see them that way. They would never call to mind that word, but use another fitting their own cultural and personal history. Perhaps a warrior astride a horse, or a sentinel on guard, or a drunk who missed his ride, or a silent friend. A one-legged relation. Or just a dang tree, requiring no metaphor or simile, no comparison to anything less glorious than its treeness. So be it. As long as we look on it with wonder, I whisper. Wonder, love and glee.
Poets make it OK to have our own intimate experience of things and still respect that of others. They make the universal personal and the personal universal. And I’m not talking just about people who write poetry, but those who speak poetically, who have not lost touch with their own sensibilities, who continue to respond from somewhere deep inside and not from just the latest opinion or nasty joke. Who are interested in considering what they might really feel about something instead of carrying on a tradition of resentment, suspicion or dismissal passed on from generations of teachers, preachers, and parents. Not to mention shock jocks, crass comedians, and pornographers who make a career out of reducing humans to merely things to be used and discarded, over and over again. Poets explore the edges, not to see how far they can get in provoking discomfort, but in awakening wonder. Poets make it hard for us to dismiss the “saint”, the sanctity, in every child, woman and man, not to mention tree.
The first three pages of Crozier’s book are entitled: Light, Dust and Wind. They are the “first causes”, the immovable forces at the beginning of our world. Or, if not our world, certainly Saskatchewan. When a traveler, usually a woman, though often a man, of a certain age, traveling alone, asks me for a book to take with them into the campground, to read under the dark and starry sky by light of lamp or flashlight, I flip to the page called “Light” and begin: “You don’t know what light feels or how its thinking goes. You do know this is where it’s most at home. On the plains where you were born, there are no mountains to turn it back, no forest for it to shoulder through. A solitary tree marks its comings and goings like a pole sunk in the shore of the ocean to measure the tides.”
Sometimes I just have to get to that point and they snatch it from my hands and ask: what else? As if I have proven worthy of their trust, I have given them what they’ve been looking for. Or, if they continue to stand, listening patiently I continue to the last phrase, as proud as if I wrote the words myself: ” 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 its million watery wings.” And then, without fail, the deal is done. From there I might hand them Richard Wagamese’s “Embers”, or “Ragged Company” or Butala’s “Wild Rose” or “The Perfection of Morning” or Candace Savage’s “Curious by Nature”. Certainly Stegner’s “Wolf Willow” or Norris’ “Dakota”. But I must suss out the extent of their willingness to delve deeper, although I’m not too worried if their white liberal guilt forces them to spend a few more bucks because, as I’ve learned in my own stumbling process toward awareness, it’s not how you get there, but that you get there.
I am eager for them to read “Clearing the Plains” and the new writing by indigenous authors telling their own stories about the legacy of the ravages of residential schools and I might even read to them a quote from Roger Epp’s collected essays called ‘We Are All Treaty People”, paraphrasing the minister responsible for the 1998 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples when she said: “people today are living out the legacy of decision made in a different time”.
No, I might say, we didn’t personally put native residents of this land on reservations, but we are living from the legacy of that decision made by our culture. Sometimes I might even make a comparison to segregation in the states, or sexism in our own back yard, to get a point across. Sometimes I don’t say anything, Sometimes I need to not push or proselytize, other times I wonder if I’m guilty of “the silence of friends” that Martin Luther King warned is worse than the taunts of bigots. And all I wanted to do was be the book lady!
I’m sitting next to a stack of catalogues, knowing’ll miss a story, knowing someone will have a criticism about what I’ve placed on the shelf, or overlooked. Knowing there are hundreds of voices out there, and the numbers are growing daily. Knowing that its time for the power of place to surpass the problems of time. Surely, ‘place’ and its many voices- from wind to poet to native to settler to bird to bard to beast will say something worth saving, will tell the stories that can save our better from our stupid selves.
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.