I admit I am looking forward to the winding down of this hot summer. The urgent need to water the flowers and garden Betty and I planted in the spring is starting to wear on me. You can’t dare miss a day with these temperatures. And then there’s the wind. “Pretty much dries up everything before you’ve made it back to your car,” says Betty. She assures me I’m not alone in my waning vigilance. We’re sitting in the yard in front of my apartment- no mosquitoes being an upside to the whole ‘drought’ drama. It’s our first real visit since the summer started with a bang. Talk turns to carrots. “What a lost cause that was!” I whine.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. ” Even the Hutterites carrots are teeny. And the radishes? I never saw one. And the potatoes- don’t even get me started on the potatoes: two per plant! But the cucumbers! And the watermelon!”
“Ya-es,” she say, in a Texan accent that only pops up when expressing the affirmative. “But I didn’t actually plant them! They come up from those evenings last year sitting out on the step eating melon and spitting seeds out into the dirt!
Betty’s story of accidental bounty reminds me of one my friend Helen shared at her grad show at Emily Carr. Having first acquired an agriculture degree at University of Guelph,her artwork revolved around, food, soil and that great metaphor of transformation and potential: the seed. If you take the train through the Ottawa valley, she told us, you’ll notice there are apple trees all along the tracks. That might lead you believe there were once orchards. But no, it was the fruit of apple seeds spit from the mouths of the men who worked the rails, on and around the trains that passed through there. You see, besides sandwiches and maybe a slice of pie, every tin lunch box contained an apple or two.
We live in a territory where we grab at whatever gifts it decides to render us. There’s a sign at the old 76 Ranch that reminds us: this is a place where the land demands respect and if you don’t show some, it will extract it from you, you can bet on that. And, in return for the tiring respect that comes from endless watering and water content tests, the gamble of gauging one’s timing around when to act and how long to wait, the gains and losses at the hands of weather, we get the unexpected watermelon.
Before I moved to Val Marie I assumed weather was just a subject you turned to when you didn’t have anything to say, or when you were avoiding going deeper in conversation. But it became pretty evident, pretty quickly that weather is everything. I soon understood weather as a creature perched at the end of the bed, waiting for us to wake up, and upon seeing the merest lift of an eyelid, clapping its hands together like a cruise coordinator or a project foreman and announcing: Good! You’re here! So, here’s what I have planned for you today…”
We also live in a territory where the bison again roam. Long before I realized I’d be living so close to them, I’d begun using a daily focusing practice involving animal totem cards. The cards were also a Helen thing. One evening, at her apartment in Vancouver’s east end, she pulled out a deck and showed me how they worked. It’s based on the native belief that every animal has its own medicine to teach us about an element of our lives – either we have that talent or skill ourselves, and need to utilize it, or we need to acquire it. The cards are based on North American animals and draw on Lakota, Aztec, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Cherokee and other tribes’ teachings.
I took the cards with me when I moved to Tennessee and pulled one every morning and every night. What is it I need to focus on today? I’d ask. My days kept rendering up the “ant” card. “Patience”. Really? Again? I don’t have time for patience! I’d gripe. And pull again. Then it was “hawk” which reminded me to “honour all life forms as messengers. Listen to what you need to learn”. The point of the cards is, no matter what card you draw, you are asked to look at your attitudes and approaches to living, with the hopes of becoming a more conscious being. Every animal in the deck will beckon you to face a challenge or tweak your ego in a way that asks you to consider your behaviour. My daily ritual of pulling a card brought me closer to animals even in the inner city, where the coyotes and returned nightly and mockingbirds sang nonstop, along with the cicadas and junebugs. I became curious as to why certain animals drew me to them and started reading nature books and magazines; looking for similarities between their character traits and my own.
Near the end of the year I was pulling a lot of buffalo cards. At the same time I was getting a run on bison and hawk I was writing a performance with two friends from the deep South. Phillip grew up a child preacher and Joel was an “octoroon”, a mix of Mexican, native and white. (Or so they told me. The South is a place rich in stories and exaggeration. I have always been drawn to its atmosphere of Gothic surrealism, dripping with sweat, dust, or swamp. My friends came up in the world of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. They also were steeped in the weariness and energy of Charlie Patton, Rufus Thomas, Mojo Buford and B. B. King. Memphis is the home of the blues and smack dab in the middle of the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s loaded with burdensome history.
Phillip and Joel and I wrote our performance, Logos, with the intention of cross-pollinating languages and world views, shamans and preachers and newscasters blurring into a collage of alternate universes. The first Gulf War had just begun, and I played the news anchor, beginning with the words: “In the news tonight….” The phrase became a motif to which I would return again and again, interrupting Phillips end of days preaching and Joel’s chants. My newscasts became more and more poetic until the last line: ” In the news tonight, everybody in the same prairie town reported having the same dream last night. They dreamed all the buffalo came back and headed toward town. And in the dream the people walked out of their houses to see the ancient beasts, on the edge, getting closer, moving slowing, but with purpose, approaching Main Street. And the people with the same dream woke up and headed out their doors to see if it was true and what they found there were all their neighbours looking to see if it was true, too.
What has always amazed me about that performance was that I journalism wasn’t even on my radar. And I’d never even considered moving to a small prairie town where the bison were just a few minutes away. It was another moment in my life as an artist where my theory that our art is our prophet proved true.
The buffalo is a totem of “abundance”, asking that we let go of “fear of lack or scarcity” and be receptive to gifts and messages from unlikely places.
Recently, I was talking to my friend Page about “The Wind in the Willows”. I had expected it to be more magical, but really, it was about a toad who acted like an addict looking for his next adrenaline hit. “Oh yeah, Toad’s nuts. ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ is my favourite chapter. That was definitely magical!” ” What piper!” I asked, grabbing my book. It turns out mine is an abridged and edited edition, with chapter seven omitted in its entirety. Immediately Page ran to his house to get his copy and demanded I read it on the spot. “But this is so beautiful! The lost otter-child, the rescue mission drifting down the river with moon rising, the growing light swelling with the piper’s far away mysterious heavenly music…why would you deliberately omit this? It’s exquisite!”
Perhaps the publisher of that edition thought the mysterious Pan-like creature would frighten them, or confuse them as to the source of dawn’s glorious call (yet had no problem with the raid on Toad hall with guns and sticks). I’ll never know for sure. But what I do know is: whether it’s me or somebody else trying to micro-manage my experience of Life, or The Great Mystery or align me with the purpose of Heaven, I am never certain what gift or lesson, what unlikely bounty, I will be left holding at the end of the day. And it it’s never what I planned.
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.