Here and There – by Dominique Liboiron
When we learn a new word, we begin to hear to it everywhere. Of course, the word was there before, in books and conversations, but we never noticed it. Like words, people have a way of appearing here and there once we learn their name. For me, one of those people was RD Symons.
Years ago, I began to hear people talk about him, especially ranchers who had a connection to the Graburn Gap in the Cypress Hills along the Saskatchewan/Alberta border. His name then began to emerge in magazines and historical accounts of early pioneers. After that, a cousin of mine bought me one of his books called Hours and the Birds. She thought I’d like to read a story written by someone who once lived in this region, even if it had been a long time ago.
Robert David Symons came to the Cypress Hills in 1914. He was 16. Symons loved nature and wanted to be a cowboy so he left his native England by ship then boarded a train in New York and eventually reached Maple Creek. He found work on the Scotty Gow place.
When I learned that the Esplanade was hosting a display called RD Symons, Countryman, I made sure to visit it. This would be my first chance to see his illustrations and paintings in person.
After paying the more-than-reasonable entry fee of a few dollars and change, I entered the exhibit with a sense of curiosity. This moment was part of a discovery that began about 10 years ago when his name first registered in my mind.
Two of the paintings on the wall were particularly interesting to me because of their strong Cypress Hills themes. The first shows a sheepherder’s wagon with 76 written on the white canvas, a reference to the iconic 76 Ranch from the early ranching days. The other painting shows a Native encampment. Above the tipis, we see the tree-covered Cypress Hills. In the clouds above the Hills, a column of red-coated Mounted Police are riding two-by-two, perhaps on their way to build Ft. Walsh. The painting is untitled so I can also guess what message Symons was trying to convey, but I like the painting because our landscape and, symbolically, many of this area’s ancestors are depicted, whether First Nations or the descendants of Mounties who pioneered here after their discharge.
Several quotes from Symons’ books are on the wall, too. If you like horses, animals, history or reading, I think you’ll find the quotes interesting. I recommend a visit.
Unless you’re an RD Symons groupie, I’m not sure I’d drive to Medicine Hat just to see the display because it isn’t that extensive. If you’re already in the Hat, however, there’s no doubt it’s worth stopping.
When he passed away in Stilton, Saskatchewan in 1973, Symons left behind a sizeable body of work in terms of books, drawings and paintings. Although he didn’t achieve the fame of Charlie Russell, or even the renown of Will James, who also spent some time in the Cypress Hills, Symons made significant contributions to the fabric of our province, but didn’t get the credit he deserves. That being said, there’s a good chance you’ve seen his work, but didn’t know it. He painted the stunning nature dioramas at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, which are definitively worth visiting next time you’re there.
Those of you who have driven between the Ranger Station and Elkwater might recall seeing a long, rectangular cabin along Battle Creek. The structure is slowly decaying, but it is nevertheless an interesting landmark. Symons used to live there.
If you’d like to see some excellent aerial videos of the cabin and of the West Block, I highly recommend PJ Chudleigh’s The Cabin, a Cypress Hills Story. Chudleigh created the video to explore what it means to be a pioneer. He also explores how the pioneering spirit lives within us even though we wouldn’t define ourselves as pioneers, a word we associate with our ancestors. The term seems to belong to the past, but not so according to Chudleigh.
I watched the video at a recent showing at the Medicine Hat Library and I can attest to the excellent photography in the video. The view of the cabin and of the Conglomerate Cliffs is truly impressive. To obtain your copy, please contact him at 662-4047.
The RD Symons display at the Esplanade runs until May 14. For more information, please call 403-502-8583 or visit http://www.esplanade.ca.
As a rancher, naturalist and author, RD Symons had a fondness for horses, which he communicated with his paintbrush and pen.